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THE POOR PEOPLE’S POLICE


September 4, 2013
By Robert Lunney

560 words – MR

The poor people’s police

by Robert Lunney

There is much talk of income inequality in Canada. According to columnist Jeffery Simpson, between 1980 and 2009 the top 20 per cent of the population captured more than half of Canada’s income growth. The bottom 20 per cent could claim just one per cent. Most gains have gone to the very small group of “super-rich.”

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In both Canada and the United States politicians are beginning to focus on income disparity, calling attention to the relative failure of the middle class to sustain its economic status. Many see income inequality as a fairness and social justice issue. No one is suggesting at this point that the situation is anywhere near crisis or that civil unrest is in the offing but the “Occupy” demonstrations in 2012, leaderless by design and lacking in focus, raised the national conscience on the issue.

When large numbers of people hit the streets with protest demonstrations and marches, the police are unavoidably involved to keep the peace and protect lives and property. If there is an outbreak of lawless public behaviour the police must intervene, setting the stage, in this case, for accusations that police are tools of a privileged well-off minority.

A common motto of policing is “to serve and protect.” Throughout history, caustic critics have alleged that this means to serve and protect the powerful from the powerless, leaving the forces for order with the image of pawns for a privileged minority. This representation is abhorrent to the principles of democratic policing. The philosophy of community policing is focussed on ensuring fairness and equity.

In my memoir I described witnessing an event which reflected this commitment. Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) members had gathered for their annual general meeting in Chicago in the early 1990’s. A seminal episode took place that speaks eloquently to the philosophy of community policing.

This was the era when managers of the public service were exhorted to run their organizations like businesses. To give PERF members a better insight, organizers had arranged for several leaders from the private sector to form a panel and share their decision-making principles with the group. When PERF members spoke from the floor confessing their misgivings about probable outcomes of decision-making heavily weighted by economic values, one of the panelists quizzically observed, “You’re the poor people’s police, aren’t you?” The collective response was, “Yes, we are. A part of our mission is to defend the oppressed, the demoralized, the defeated and the victims of crime, whoever they may be, and we will continue to do this primarily on measures of effectiveness, even if that is at the cost of efficiency and economy.”

In a just society, it should not be otherwise. We saw that commitment reflected in the deft response of police in Toronto and Vancouver during the “Occupy” demonstrations, when officers managed large and unpredictable crowds with intelligence and compassion until the protests eventually lost momentum.

With a growing public and political awareness directed towards the economic situation of the less fortunate we may see corrective attention from both private sector and governments and no resumption of public protests. In the mean time, diligent attention by police to positioning, image and the practise of community policing is the best assurance for sustaining the confidence and support of the public.