Blue Line


September 8, 2015  By Robert Lunney

Police in the United States are dealing with a crisis of public confidence on the use of deadly force, a serious threat to legitimacy. Thus far the search for remedies has zeroed in on training. Without a foundation and comprehensive strategy for change, training alone will predictably fall short of success.

With foresight and perception, Canadian police leaders have an opportunity to use this cross-border crisis to review our own approach to use of force in a comprehensive way and raise professional standards in the process. A check list for attention could look like this:

  1. Philosophy – The underlying culture and ethos of an organization must run like a thread through policies, training and practices, controlling the instincts and reactions of its members and how they interact with each other and their public. True to our roots, the principles of Sir Robert Peel remain the bedrock of Canadian policing philosophy, relevant in content and language to this day. Peel’s sixth principle is a commitment:

While the primary responsibility rests with top police leadership, governance boards, oversight bodies and police associations should be consulted and involved in defining and affirming a statement expressing the underlying philosophy of policing in Canada. Desirably this should be a national goal.

  1. Legality – Alignment with Canadian law and jurisprudence is the first touchstone for reviewing use of force policy, carried out in collaboration with the best available legal advice. Provincial attorneys general should be consulted and involved.

  2. Strategy – Strategy is the means by which the philosophy is ingrained in the minds of police service members. It is essential to think through and implement measures for bringing about the desired results. The strategy should include a plan for after-care support for officers, involved families and survivors of use of force incidents.

  3. Screening and Hiring – It is critical that only persons of good character and integrity be entrusted with the appointment of peace officer. Candidates with the motivation and character aligning with the policing philosophy should be screened in, those who do not, screened out. The police service’s website and recruitment videos should reflect the realities of the police officers’ job on a day-to-day level, emphasizing the ideas of community policing, crime prevention and high standards of professionalism. A police recruiting video that emphasizes militaristic images is appealing to the wrong audience.

  4. Education and Training – Education is the foundation of training. The principles and values of the policing philosophy and internal policy must be reflected in all aspects of learning, from the indoctrination of new recruits through to in-service training. A review would include scrutiny of foundational education and training at the police colleges. Use of force training should be delivered through an integrated process, rather than by teaching tactical communication, open-hand techniques, less than lethal weapons and deadly force as separate subject matter. This will require ingenuity in design by training staff. A certification program for police use of force trainers is a reasonable goal at the provincial level.

  5. Accountability – The role of the chief and governing authorities is critical to embedding a culture of continuous improvement through the judicious assessment of incidents and outcomes. A policy driven review of every deadly force incident with reporting to the governing authority will contribute to public confidence. The early official statements in the aftermath of a deadly force incident are a test of accountability. Although restraining legislation and protection of a clean investigation will inhibit the amount and detail released near the beginning of an investigation, spokespersons, including the chief, must demonstrate the greatest possible degree of openness and candor. In provinces employing a special agency to investigate a deadly force incident, this responsibility passes to that bureau. There are many cases when these agencies have not met the test of timeliness and clarity, to the detriment of the reputation of the involved police service rather than the agency. Where these conditions exist, government intervention is the only option.

A policy review based on these six steps could be undertaken by individual police services in collaboration with their police association, provincial attorney general, governing board and oversight agency. Several may already have done so. While national standards for use of force policy would be desirable, the constitutional make up of the country may render this impractical. At a time when fundamental changes to the economy are causing stress in all parts of Canada, the loss of public confidence and a lowering of police legitimacy triggered by use of force incidents would be tragic. Prevention always trumps damage control.

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