Policing itself is under threat

Police forces in Toronto and across North America are in the fight of their corporate lives,
In the spring of 2001, before the attacks of 9/11, I was invited by the International Association of Chiefs of Police to address its world conference on the subject of crisis management.  As part of my research for my presentation I spoke with half a dozen police chiefs from around the world.  What I learned surprised me.

“It’s 2015 now and the lustre of 9/11 heroism has begun to rub off the shiny badges of police forces across North America.”

When asked “what keeps you awake at night,” all the chiefs – not most, all – replied with a common issue: reputation.  The biggest challenge pre-9/11 police chiefs were facing was policing’s deteriorating reputation.  They told me policing had been a highly-respected vocation when they’d begun their careers.  It didn’t pay well, and you didn’t need much education, but you became a respected leader in society when you put on the uniform.  People deferred to you, they listened to you, they trusted you.  There was a lineup of (then mostly) young men applying to join the ranks.

By the spring of 2001, the chiefs told me, all that had changed.  They struggled to attract quality recruits, largely they believed because the social status of policing had changed.  Cops were being paid more than ever before, but being a police officer was no longer a noble vocation with a respected status in society.  They were no longer trusted.  This made their jobs harder every day, I was told.  Whole communities were suspicious of the police and wouldn’t cooperate with investigations.  As a result, cases weren’t being closed and criminals grew bolder.  This failure to protect communities further damaged the reputation of the police force as a whole.

I took what I learned from the chiefs and based my presentation to the 2001 IACP World Conference on that insight.  It was well-received, despite being delivered just days after 9/11.  In most respects, my advice had already been rendered obsolete.  At least, for a time.

The terror attacks on New York City and Washington D.C. did many things.  One collateral outcome was the rehabilitation of police forces everywhere.  Police officers, like fire fighters and other emergency responders, were once again seen by western society as heroes.  Their social status was elevated.  Mainstream society admired, honoured and trusted police officers once again.  Recruiting became easy as young women and men flocked to join the heroes in blue.  My police chiefs had dodged a reputational bullet; they were saved.  But only for a time.

It’s 2015 now and the lustre of 9/11 heroism has begun to rub off the shiny badges of police forces across North America, revealing the same flawed corporate cultures that created the reputational crisis police chiefs were concerned about 14 years ago.  Only, now there are few chiefs remaining in service who remember what it was like before the crisis had begun.  Those in command of large police services were formed as front-line leaders in the crucible of the post 9/11 world, where erring on the side of security, nay “national security,” was always the right thing to do; more was always better; safe was better than sorry.  Police services of today are back facing the same crisis that kept chiefs awake in 2001, but now they have fewer institutional resources available to them to help them understand the problem or remember the solutions.

“When we see a lone police officer wrestling with a man outside a liquor store, we should be able to assume the cop is the good guy.”

Even in Toronto, a city of 2.8 million Canadians – the most polite, respectful, deferential to authority and peaceable people on Earth – growing segments of society are losing faith in their police.  It’s no longer just the minorities living in depressed neighbourhoods where crime rates are highest.  Since the 2010 G20 summit in Toronto, it’s the hipsters and intellectual artists too.  It’s even middle-aged, Dad-bodied, white men (some of whom have served in uniform themselves) who’ve enjoyed every systemic privilege we accuse middle-aged white men to have received.  Guys like me no longer trust the police force to do what’s right all the time.  We’re back in a society that doesn’t trust police as much as it should.

But, it’s worse this time.  Since 9/11, our police services have become more para-military than they were before.  Police unions, riding the hero wave, have bargained more powers and become more activist than before.  Police compensation is now so high it attracts recruits for the money, not just for the social respect (there is little) or the sense of duty to society (“my job is to go home at the end of the day” explained a Toronto police officer on trial for murder.)

The good news is that perception is not reality.  The reality is that in Toronto, as in most communities, the vast majority of serving police officers are exceptional public servants.

The bad news is that reality is entirely irrelevant.  People don’t form judgments, or base their decisions and actions, on reality.  They base them on their perceptions. And a fast-growing segment of society in Toronto, in Chicago, in New York City, in Ferguson, in cities and towns across North America, perceive their police services to be acting for their own benefit – not society’s.  The cars are painted with “to serve and protect,” but too many citizens see cops acting as if they’re motivated by a desire to cash an above average pay check and go home at night, whatever it may take.

“The good news is, perception is not reality.  The bad news, is reality is entirely irrelevant.”

This is a problem for police chiefs everywhere.  I hope they realize it soon and take action quickly, because the solution will be neither easy or fast.  They need to get started now.  If they don’t, policing will become increasingly at odds with society and society will ultimately find another way, withdrawing the special powers it has bestowed on police and distributing them elsewhere.  Slow moving forces may disappear entirely.

Where else?  I don’t know.  Fewer, better police services?  More empowerment for private security, perhaps, in a competitive environment where communities can fire the security company if it doesn’t meet expectations.  Disarming front line police, perhaps.  Vast reductions in numbers of police overall and investment in alternatives that may or may not work. The risk of experimentation is high.

I’d rather not take that risk with the lives of my children, so I hope police chiefs and their oversight boards will figure this out fast.  Because, when we see a lone police officer in a wrestling match with a person outside a liquor store, we should automatically assume the police officer is the good guy.  Already, even in Toronto, that is no longer always the case.

A version of this column appeared in the Huffington Post on Dec. 2, 2015