An article by Haben Dawit
Perhaps two of the most imperative and fundamental pillars of any government institution are transparency and accountability. Although both play a prominent role in maintaining public trust and justifying large government expenditure of taxpayer funds, the latter of the two seems to be occupying a position of secondary importance within the bounds of governing contemporary Canadian policing. While criminal justice experts generally agree that in its operations, the police should be free from political interference, there is also increasing consensus that legitimate and consistent oversight and accountability mechanisms are required for avoidance of incidents of police misconduct (Griffiths, 2014). The key area of contention within this discourse is precisely why a “code of silence" (as it may be characterized) is particularly inherent in this occupation as opposed to other professions. Research indicates that there is a rather unique element of fraternity within law enforcement that has been highly influential since the mid-20th century (Griffiths, 2014). This seemingly subconscious set of ideals that has pervaded the contemporary policing institution serves a two-fold purpose for police officers. Firstly, it provides a security element among police officers who may have committed, been implicated in, or witnessed a transgression that would normally warrant punitive sanctions. Secondly, it creates a sense of belonging that binds fellow officers into an unwritten set of rules that at this point has been lifted simply to the status of tradition.
The absence of real accountability in our policing system more so pertains to the latter purpose. In the hypothetical event that an officer goes to a superior about a transgression he witnessed a fellow officer committing, whether or not his superior chooses to reprimand the accused police officer, the accuser is now likely to face severe marginalization and alienation by his fellow officers. This is simply an implication of breaking the bind that has become a central part of policing in Canada and the United States. Modern academics have attributed the intensification of this paradigm to the post-9/11 sentiments and feelings of a need for security. With this came increasing hostility towards certain minority groups by police officers, thus exacerbating the need for a “code of silence” to avoid disciplinary actions. Furthermore, the United States, in particular, has within the last decade witnessed a militarization of their police forces nationwide, also in response to animosity brewed up in the post-9/11 period (Murphy, 2007). Although Canadian police forces witnessed a more mundane “revolutionization” of their police force, the implications were nonetheless not limited to our southern neighbours. Even prior to 9/11, the studies conducted by Christopher Murphy in 2007 reveal that accountability mechanisms of both the RCMP and CSIS had already previously been subject to immense criticise. Since then, policing’s expanded security operations only facilitated further problems with respect to an absence of accountability.
This expansion came as the natural next stage following the passage of the Anti-Terrorism Act in 2001, where public accountability and transparency were significantly reduced (Murphy, 2007). This is what many academics have characterized as “the price to pay” for national security. With an increased budget and permission to act came an increase in accusations of police misconduct. For instance, between 2008 and 2012, Toronto police officers disproportionately targeted Black citizens for the majority of the 1.8 million cards handed out during the infamous “carding program” (Griffiths, 2014 pg. 131). Public discontent inevitably led to the elimination of this disgraced practice. Even given this, there continues to be increased reluctance from police officers to report on their colleagues when misconduct is believed to have been committed. While Dr. Rodney D. Green and Dr. Jillian Aldebron of Howard University have correctly characterized policing as an inherently repressive societal obligation, they have suggested the creation of civilian review boards (CRBs) to combat anything that transpires outside the bounds of reasonable police work (2019). Although they note that these boards have recently been largely ineffective, they still see a shift for the better as possible if there begins to be an alteration in the socio-economic structure of policing itself.
In regard to why an absence of accountability exists in policing and may not exist in many other professions, there are a few reasons for the discrepancy. Firstly, it is important to acknowledge the nature of police work and the proximity an officer can expect to work with a colleague. Although many professions today involve an element of teamwork, policing is unique in that officers spend considerable time (perhaps even a majority of the time) working, in some capacity, with fellow officers. Whether this is over radio or physically in squads of two or more, most officers can expect to work in close association with one another. This also ties into the next reason, which delves into the actual implications and consequences of being a police officer in the field. In essence, officers rely on one another to prevent harm and at times save the lives of their colleagues. This is particularly unique to this area of work, unlike lawyers, pharmacists, and sanitation workers who are not burdened with this distinct responsibility. Thus naturally, for many officers, the significance of this expectation translates into a need for unconditional loyalty in every capacity.
With a difference in actual profession-based responsibilities comes a difference in solutions to problems that arise as a result of these responsibilities. A potential solution that intellectuals including Dr. Gene Grabiner of Berkeley have endorsed are body-worn cameras. Perhaps the epitome of an accountability-aimed procedure, Grabiner (2016) cites the example of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) that, although was initially uneasy with the idea of increased video cameras recording interactions between police and citizens, acknowledges that these measures have in fact reduced the number of police complaints regarding excessive force. While officers of the law are being surveyed and understand that any maneuver that deviates from responsible police work will be caught on video, their superiors are likely left with little choice but to take appropriate measures in admonishing the guilty parties. If law enforcement are unsure whether or not punitive measures should be taken (as historically this institution has pondered over the most “black-and-white” cases of police brutality), the public backlash will likely suffice enough to incentivize it.
Furthermore, studies have indicated that an emphasis created in the late 2000s regarding a “problem-solving process” has instead shifted focus onto determining how environmental conditions can be manipulated to minimize instances where crime may occur (Reisig, 2010 pg. 3). As a result, fighting and preventing crime has been championed while misconduct manifested through police actions have been put to the side, at least for the foreseeable future. In other words, the ends are often regarded as justifying the means, yet undoubtedly to a certain extent. Nonetheless, this “extent,” as well as the means to it, are often regarded as intolerable for many individuals of historically marginalized communities who find themselves at the crossroads between a desire for crime reduction and a police force attempting to secure this objective.
Lastly, the introduction of “intelligence-led policing” (IIP) has also led to the traditionally operationally aggressive, proactive, and less accountable form of policing (Murphy, 2007 pg. 465). This method of law enforcement bears parallels and overlap with the largely condemned type of “zero-tolerance policing,” where there remains an emphasis on aggressive police analysis as a basis for precise intervention. This seemingly similar version of neoliberal government policy has unsurprisingly created significant criticism by many advocating for a more liberal-style approach to crime prevention. This being, a focus on rehabilitation and police work within affected communities rather than weightage towards punitive measures and belligerent-oriented surveillance. IIP is distinct in its operations, however, due to its particular focus on intelligence gathering. It is nonetheless carried out by members of law enforcement, and thus should still be subject to expectations of accountability.
Moving forward, in the essence of maintaining public trust and confidence, it is in the best interests of the police to adopt durable and transparent accountability instruments. As previously stated, accountability mechanisms are certainly necessary for proper police work, but are most definitely not sufficient for it. In other words, and absence of accountability is detrimental, but its presence does not necessarily guarantee fair and proper policing operations. Nonetheless, the ability for law enforcement to be held accountable has proved beneficial in multiple instances, including in the Peel Region, where multiple measures were taken in an attempt to mend the wounds of previous policing administrations. One example of a measure adopted was the newly announced policing principles which essentially illustrated how police authority and responsibility to public consent were in fact linked (Murphy, 2007). This, by extension, allowed themselves to be subject to parameters set by their own functionaries, and with this newly announced set of principles, forced them to operate within them or else be held accountable to the people they promised to serve and protect. The logistical feasibility of operations like this may pose issues in highly diverse and populated regions like the downtown core, but notwithstanding these inevitable obstacles, attempts should surely be made. A transparent policing accountability apparatus brings the community one step closer to increasing chances of equitable justice in the case of police misconduct. If we expect our law enforcement to abide by a very specific set of rules and practices, any stray from them will allow us to hold them to the fullest extent of the law.
Grabiner, G. (2016). Who Polices the Police? Social Justice, 43(2), 58-79. https://www-jstor-org.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/stable/
Green, R.D. (2019). In Search of Police Accountability: Civilian Review Boards and the Department of Justice. Phylon (1960-), 56(1), 111-133. https://www-jstor-org.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/stable/26743833?Search=yes&resultItem
Griffiths, C.T. (2014). Canadian Criminal Justice: A PRIMER. Nelson College Indigenous
Murphy, C. (2007). “Securitizing” Canadian Policing: A New Policing Paradigm for the Post 9/11 Security State? The Canadian Journal of Sociology/ Cahiers canadiens de sociologie, 32(4), 449-475. https://www-jstor-org.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/stable/pdf/20460665.pdf?ab_segments=0%252FSYC-5910%252Ftest&refreqid=excelsior%3A9aad2bdddc4075fc7d8e6831210bb4c5
Reisig, M. D. (2010). Community and Problem-Oriented Policing. Crime and Justice, 39(1), 1-53. https://www-jstor-org.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/stable/pdf/10.1086/652384.pdf?ab_segments=0%252FSYC-5910%252Ftest&refreqid=excelsior%3Ac968898c240c0dbde042d869a75230e0