Blue Line

Ignoring the weight of the badge

August 30, 2016  By Valarie Findlay

1695 words – MR

Ignoring the weight of the badge

by Valarie Findlay

The boiling anger in the US over use of force, racism and racial-bias in policing has profoundly affected Canada’s struggle with our own issues. While we appear similar our cultural and societal changes and policing challenges remain distinctly different at the grassroots level.


One aspect that is the same in both countries: public trust and confidence suffers after negative policing incidents. Accusations fly in the wake of unanswered questions and diplomatic rhetoric from police brass.

There’s a lack of strategy to direct communications on controversial topics and manage incidents as they unfold. This results in a firestorm of public emotion at a time when answers are most needed, but also opens a short window of opportunity to quell anger. Instead, the public is often left exasperated and demanding answers to square the circle, while policing agencies are temporarily silenced and well aware of the public’s mounting frustration.

The rank and file show up for their shifts and go about their job in a climate of increased tension and added weight to their duties. How did ‘tenuous and disparate’ become the new normal?

Influenced by jarring headlines, is the public so far off center that it fails to recognize the commitment and cannot empathize with the challenges of those who police their community? Are police so detached from the public that they cannot empathize with the public’s fears and need for dialogue and answers?

Possibly the divide has less to do with empathy and more to do with a perceived stale-mate – no one knows what to fix first, or even how to fix it.

Bridging communication between the public and police has become a priority and must begin with building trust and honest dialogue before, not after, a serious incident. Police explaining policing to the public is difficult at best – a perceived bias will persist even with the most articulate officer and exemplary soft skills. It doesn’t help that the inherent language of authority is loaded with a pejorative tone and that the policing ethos encourages shouldering – not sharing – the weight, creating an impervious barrier.

Even if communications were fluid, the public is unlikely to hear the candid truth – the horrors of policing, the struggle with stress and depression, the burden it places on families, the realization that although the chosen career is not what an officer thought it would be, there is still nothing they would rather do. Moreover, you wouldn’t hear about the irreconcilable policing dichotomy, where the person arrested today was the same person an officer served and protected yesterday.

Truly progressive police organizations are recognizing the importance of public confidence and striving to find innovative ways to educate, communicate and explain their processes – but this is not solely the duty of policing agencies. Communities need to engage and accept the reality of the operational challenges of policing and abandon the role of arm-chair ‘judge and jury.’ Officers are expected to act as psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers and mediators, absorbing the operational stress, resource constraints and psychological impacts of the worst of calls.

These perceptions can be countered through effective communications driven by a well-thought out strategy that fosters a trusting relationship and encourages two-way communications. From there, incident-driven communications maintain the rapport through immediate response to the public and the media, targeting specific audiences using appropriate channels to deliver relevant and timely messages.

Although cheap and easy, one-channel communication approaches such as Facebook and Twitter can only be supplemental; they are effective in delivering low-priority messages but do little to engage and allow for true dialogue when negative incidents occur.

Social media has benefits but can also be an agency’s worst enemy. Control over the message and context is quickly lost when the first communiqué of an incident comes from an unverified video circulating on social media. Viewers play a video over and over and – without a counter and often influenced by news media, video games and the entertainment industry – draw their own conclusions.

It doesn’t take long for charges of hyper-masculine aggression and insufficient, outdated or militarized police training to be levelled. This is why communicating the functional aspects of these incidents and training and its limits can be valuable forays into developing public understanding.

In a recent article, Andrew Mitrovica compared an incident he witnessed to that of James Forcillo’s handling of his interaction with Sammy Yatim.

<The cops kept their cool, working together – as they’ve no doubt been trained – to disarm a kid who was wielding a knife not that much different from the one Yatim was flashing on the streetcar on that fateful morning. They resolved the tense situation without firing a shot despite the fact that, arguably, this kid posed more of a danger to the police and public than Yatim did.

In the end, I can’t help but think that if this group of police officers – who, like Forcillo, swore an oath to serve and protect the public, but, unlike Forcillo, responded so differently, wisely, calmly and professionally to another disturbed young man in distress – had been there when Sammy Yatim needed help, he might be alive today, getting the help he so desperately needed.>

Irrespective of how you felt about Forcillo’s conduct, an officer can easily understand that no incident is the same. The public belief that these incidents can be equally compared and assessed by an untrained bystander is a big challenge.

“Officers are trained to identify real firearms from ‘fake’ ones… hard-edged weapons are much less dangerous than firearms… an unarmed person can’t be considered dangerous… it’s easy to tell if someone is suffering from a mental crisis if you look for the signs…” the list goes on.

Substantial value can be found in educating the public on the complex challenges arising from the practical aspects of crisis intervention and legislative constraints.

The 2014 Ontario Human Rights Commission report on mental health disabilities and use of force and the 2016 Ontario Ombudsman’s report, () on improved crisis intervention in policing have done little to underscore the complexities; both go in wrong directions in recommending simplifying the use of force model.

Shifting from behaviour causality to a generic ‘people in crisis’ profile with de-escalation as a core capability makes complete sense – but the theoretical obscures the practical, as is often the case where studies are conducted without front line collaboration. Simplifying use of force and suggesting a more linear model (even though it is represented as a circle), rather than a continuum of options, presents several issues.

First, crisis management and use of force is not a simple concept.

Second, linear models only work well with repeatable, predictable processes and cannot account for complex human behaviours in conflict scenarios; in fact, they are rarely effective except in communicating to non-experts.

Third, taking a complex concept like the use of force model and making it ‘simple’ can’t help but introduce subjective standards – canned, acceptable responses decided by others, such as utilizing the least or minimal amounts of force that stifle expert observation and response capabilities. This creates a conundrum: negotiation versus authority and weighing of options to mitigate liability from judgements and decisions made under stress.

Instead, progressive approaches such as objective reasonableness or a crisis management model – which include a use of force component with strategic options and specialized skills support – empower and entrust officer judgement in the elastic state of an incident and better reflect our complex societies.

Police training cannot help but be flawed; there is no prescriptive means to prepare for and respond to every action, every time, with guaranteed outcomes. No mechanism temporarily disconnects human behaviours or physiological responses.

Officers know that strategic (diffusion and de-escalation) and tactical and defensive (less-than-lethal and counter force) responses must suppress assessed capability, intent, means and opportunity. The average civilian has no appreciation for this, nor the subtleties of reaching for a pocket, body posture, eye contact or direction, etc.

Civilians would also not appreciate that many fixed factors (perceived mental state, physical capabilities, weapon type or their possible concealment, etc.) and fluid factors (emotional state, passive and active resistance, willingness to sustain injury, etc.) are key inputs that can rapidly change. This awareness can shift the paradigm of the public and the media; a tremendous impact can be seen when viewed through the lens of cumulative stress, multiple-trauma, fatigue and other physical states.

Most Canadians rarely interact with police and when they do, most encounters are positive – yet confoundingly, the growing sentiment towards police is negative.

The power of news headlines and social media are formidable and feed the public perception of police from thousands of miles away. Because of this, police ‘abuse of authority’ and ‘excessive use of force’ have come to exist both objectively and subjectively with the public and must be dealt with as valid realities.

It goes without saying that the most valued officer is the one who can achieve the desired result with the least risk or injury to all parties while maintaining public confidence –- but how realistic is this in a job where stress is insurmountable and there is little reciprocity for kindness?

Policing must be elevated and treated as a valuable core service key to community safety and quality of life. Officers selected from the best of the best need to be treated as such – the organization’s most valued asset.

Permitting the public to ignore the realities of policing and agencies to stall on adapting to change and adopting innovative communications with the community only widens the divide: the public will hold firm to its point of view, expressing anger and dismay when information needs are not met. Frontline officers will continue to be held to super-human expectations and, with every day that passes, the badge will only get heavier.


Police Foundation (USA) research fellow Valarie Findlay has two decades of senior expertise in cyber-security for policing, military and government departments. She holds a Masters in Terrorism Studies and her dissertation, “The Impact of Terrorism on the Transformation of Law Enforcement,” examined the transformation of western law enforcement. Contact: or

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