Thursday, March 26, 2009

Eyes on the prize in policing and reform

It is impossible to talk safety and prevention and not talk about cops. I am conflicted whenever I see stories of ineffective, obsolete, or just bad policing, as I did this week.

My conflict arises from my own belief in the decent goodness for people who choose an often impossible and unforgiving profession. I am committed to police reform. But it seems our policing system is a legacy of a pre-digital age. Recent crime trends, it seems, are not.

Ultimately policing is a vital, but very small, part of the public safety story. It's a story that cannot be told without participating residents.

Consider my February blog with the LAPD video about this very point.

watch video

Today the news in Vancouver is flooded with yet another story about a tragic Taser death during a violent arrest. We are told by the Taser crowd the technology works and saves lives, though apparently not in this case. We are also told Tasers are too often abused during arrests. Who to believe? Tasers are a newer technology with promise. But the medical research on them looks less like facts from sources and more like factoids from sourcelings. What to believe?

Yet again we hear calls for police reform reverberating through the media.

read Vancouver newspaper story

No one is immune and Vancouver is by no means alone. The public wants something done, mostly they want safer neighborhoods and less fear of violence. Which brings me to my duh moment - our goal: We obsess on the means to an end (policing, tasers) and forget all those means are but a tiny part of how we actually get to our public safety end.

Of course the police use of force is important. By the nature of the job it cannot go away. During violent arrests it may be needed. Of course we should make sure police training is done properly and the technology does what it says. Of course we need police reform, especially reform in training/education and the political gumption to stick with it.

Yet the goal should be to keep our eyes on the prize - neighbors working together in functional places to make vital and safe streets.

The questions we should be asking:
How to get neighbors to work together in a positive way?
How to create functional neighborhoods with social activities?
How to build places where people feel safe and participate fully in community life?
How to more effectively do community development?

As I read the latest crisis it is easy to obsess on the vicissitudes of policing when things go bad. I agree we must never forget, or fail to prevent, deaths in and from police arrests. All lives are precious. But policing was created specifically for crime prevention and public safety. Do police tactics, resources, and training focus directly and daily on crime prevention and safety? No! When they don't, they need to.

That is the prize that matters most.

1 Reply so far - Add your comment

Anonymous said...

As a former RCMP, I was agast when I saw the use of the taser on Robert Dziekanski at the Vancouver Airport. I thought to myself, these guys don't want to get their uniform's dirty! In my day, first you try to talk your way out of a dust up and if not, under these circumstances, it would be...okay guys, one to three go and get in there and cuff the assailant. We all understood that you could get punched or kicked, but that was part of the job. Some courts took exception to assailants assautling officers, other's did not. When I was in The Pas, Manitoba in the late 60's early 70's, assaulting a police officer was a $25 dollar fine. I wonder if that had something to do with why there were so many of them?

Then I thought about it. I don't think these four human beings woke up in the morning and decided that they were going to go out a taser someone to death. They made the wrong judgment call. So what should immediatley come into question is their training.

As importantly is answering why they found it necessary to go over their story. Is this a signal of lack of trust, whether it be in their own command or in the justice system that they represent? Either way, we have a problem to fix.

I note in the May 23rd issue of the Vancouver Sun that the RCMP’s national use-of-force coordinator, told the Dziekanski inquiry the RCMP changed its policy from “passive resistance” to “active resistance” in order to adhere to recommendations about taser use made last December by Paul Kennedy, head of the Commission for Public Complaints Against the RCMP.

Patrick McGowan, counsel for the Thomas Braid inquiry also probing the use of tasers in B.C., asked why the RCMP didn’t adopt Kennedy’s recommendation that tasers be reclassified as an impact weapon only to be used in situations where a suspect exhibits “combative behaviour.” The answer: “It’s a misunderstanding of the lexicon and definition,” “I don’t think we’re far off.”

This is pretty "heady" stuff for this little brain. Why would we taser anyone unless there is a justifiable risk of danger where the taser will negate the deadlier force of a firearm? Maybe it is about keeping the uniforms clean! What I do know is we had better figure out something and quickly. It impacts on the lives of the families of those tasered and the police officers and their families in applying it.