Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Respect, Fear, and Loathing

If we are completely honest, many of us will admit to a deeply ambivalent relationship with the police. On the one hand we look to them for protection against the less ordered elements of society, but on the other hand, in the deeper recesses of our psyches, we also fear and, at times, loathe them. And on some level we probably recognize that they can be very dangerous if we insist too vehemently on our rights against their sometimes arrogant intrusions into our 'space.'

Think of the rampant abuse of police authority during the G20 Toronto Summit. Think of the murder of Sammy Yatim.

And I say all this from the cossetted position of a middle-class and educated white man.

I can only imagine how much more difficult that relationship must be if one is black.

Dr. Dawg has written a fine analysis/post-mortem of the the shooting of Michael Brown and the failure of the grand jury to indict his killer, Officer Darren Wilson. If you haven't already done so, make sure to check it out.

Similarly, the CBC's senior Washington correspondent, Neil Macdonald, has penned an arresting piece that deserves wide readership. His thesis: questioning police authority is a risky, even potentially deadly, business:
Most police despise any challenge to their authority. Some will abuse it, if necessary, to protect that authority, and the system can allow them to do that.

Some police are bright, professional and educated. Some are louts. Some are racists. You never know which variety you're facing.

But what they all have in common (outside Great Britain) is the weapon at their hip, and the implicit threat of its ultimate use to settle matters.
Macdonald suggests there is but one way to behave when confronted by the police:
But I've had my share of dealings with police, in the U.S., Canada, and elsewhere in the world, and there is a universal truth: when police demand submission, it's best to submit.
Michael Brown's fatal mistake, he implies, was his refusal to submit:
Officer Darren Wilson told grand jurors that when he told Michael Brown and his friend to walk on the sidewalk that Saturday afternoon instead of down the middle of the road, Brown replied "fuck what you have to say."

Eventually, they tussled at the window of Wilson's cruiser. Finally, with both of them outside on the street and facing one another, Wilson shot the unarmed teenager to death.

Clearly, the yawning racial divide of the United States was a contributing, perhaps overriding, factor in Brown's death, and that chasm will likely never be bridged. But Macdonald suggests a practical measure that might go a long way to curbing the police violence that so painfully and periodically erupts:
Ensure that every police officer working the streets of America wears a body camera. That would certainly help.

Many police cruisers are already equipped with dash cameras. And the Ferguson case demonstrated the fallibility of eyewitness accounts.

So why not pin digital cams on uniforms? They would act as impassive, accurate monitors, both in cases of police abuse and when someone falsely claims police abuse.

I suspect police here will probably resist the idea, though. Nothing questions authority like hard video evidence.
And as experience has shown us, such a measure is sorely needed in our own country as well.


  1. When incidents such as the Michael Brown killing occur, Lorne, I find myself wondering if there'll be some knock-on effect to it that will preserve some significance to the tragedy or whether it will simply be part of our new reality. I hope these incidents have an ongoing, cumulative meaning - one more step toward a cultural and societal tipping point where we collectively turn against this subversion of our freedom and democracy. It's akin to wondering if there really is a straw that will break the camel's back or if our collective amnesia will simply kick in as the blood stains fade.

    1. I have to confess to being pessimistic here, Mound. Despite all of the video that bystanders take of police brutality and arrogance, the events themselves seem to occur with alarming regularity. I hope that all police will be required someday to wear lapel cameras, but i wouldn't be surprised if there are unexplained 'equipment failures' during compromising events. Still, they would be better than the lack of accountability that currently prevails. I often think, for example, of Sammy Yatim. Had his execution not been caught on camera, I am certain that the narrative would have been that the lad had lunged at police with his penknife, leaving them no alternative but to kill him.

  2. Forget lapel cameras, equip them with some sort of recording visor. Let's see what the officer is actually seeing through the course of an event. Let the cop's eyes aim the camera. Imagine, for example, duelers. They stand sideways to fire, minimizing their own target profile. A lapel camera would catch nothing.

    1. Sounds like a good idea, but I'm not sure such equipment is being produced, Mound.