Policing in Canada seems to be rapidly approaching a crisis of confidence among both the public and politicians. Police commanders will no doubt be working diligently with their respective civilian oversight bodies to chart a way forward to restore the confidence the public has in our respective policing organizations.
Perhaps one of the best ways to move forward is for us to look backwards and remember how we started. Policing as we now know it didn’t exist until the Metropolitan Police was established in 1829 by Sir Robert Peel, the British Home Secretary. At the time the British people were uncomfortable with the idea of a police force being under the control of the national government and they feared it could be used to enforce the will of unpopular political leaders or to suppress protest. Instead what Peel instituted was a model dependent on maintaining the trust and consent of the public, rather than relying on the might of the state to enforce its will.
While there are nine principles attributed to Peel, the second principle seems to most adequately capture a central theme running through them all: “The ability of the police to perform their duties is dependent upon public approval of police existence, actions, behaviour and the ability of the police to secure and maintain public respect.”
While we don’t require the consent of each and every individual we interact with every day in our towns and cities, it is imperative that we keep the moral authority of the public if we are to adequately protect our neighbourhoods. This isn’t about a mathematical equation showing the minority of bad incidents against the overwhelming majority of great things we, as police officers, are doing in our communities. If we don’t find some way of re-establishing that trusted connection with our communities, all the oversight, regulations and policies won’t be enough.
I don’t remember being taught anything about Peel’s principles during my police training, nor do the colleagues I asked. The nine principles are now essentially codified in various laws, regulations and policies, but the verbiage of those documents never seem to have quite the same impact as a poignant saying does. Laws and policies are certainly important, and a central piece to our work, but it is tough to change culture with this alone.
Peel’s principles transcend the issues of the day and that is important, since after today’s concerns, there will be different ones awaiting us in the future. It doesn’t matter if we are all doing the right things; we must be seen to be doing them by our communities. We all want to catch criminals and keep our communities safe, but the way in which we do that matters just as much.
I am not advocating Peel’s principles will be some sort of magic bullet, but it may be a good foundation upon which we can build something together with our communities in these trying times. Who would have guessed, nearly 200 years later, the principles we started with are the sage advice that might help heal the divide we see now.
Scott Hayes is an RCMP sergeant in the Serious & Organized Crime Section at the Hamilton detachment in Ontario. He has just recently completed a Master of Laws from Osgoode Hall Law School, York University.
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