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The time has come to start policing Canada's police

While deeply distressing stories percolate up from south of the border of rampant, unpunished, racist police violence across the United States, Canada is hardly immune from the arbitrary and shocking violence and aggression directed by police officers at entirely innocent people.

Violence and abuse that just as regularly occurs without consequence for the officers or departments here as well.

This past week alone two truly appalling cases of what can only be described as outright, naked and obvious police violence with impunity surfaced that both involved women who were not only obviously and manifestly not a "threat" to the officers in question, but who had also done absolutely nothing wrong.

In one case we have the apparent assault of a 61-year-old native elder by a Smithers, B.C. RCMP officer. He violently restrained and threw to the ground Irene Joseph because she "did not comply with verbal direction" and instead tried to get to her walker and leave the scene of an alleged crime she had nothing to do with.

An armed, trained, and apparently trusted to "serve the community" RCMP officer, to state again, used serious violence against an older woman reaching for her walker because she did not "comply with verbal direction."

Let that, and the seeming staggering cowardice and banal acceptance of naked brutality behind it, sink in.

Then on Wednesday news surfaced of an incident from 2013 where justice has finally, to a very small degree at least in one sense, prevailed 

This horrific case involved a Tim Horton's worker, 49-year-old Maria Farrell,  who made the terrible mistake of attempting to help an OPP officer responding to a call in Orillia, Ontario.

What happened next needs to be quoted from The Raw Story article in full to be really believed:

When OPP Sgt. Russ Watson arrived on the scene, Farrell attempted to point the officer in the direction of the man who had been attacking the woman, but he refused to listen.

"Shut the f*ck up," Watson warned.

"Mrs. Farrell was acting as Good Samaritan who went to the assistance of a woman who was being assaulted," Justice George Beatty said this week. "She had no criminal record and wanted to assist Sgt. Watson."

"Watson kicked her to the side, a karate-kick that snapped her leg," the judge explained, adding that "Watson then jumped on her and punched her on the left side of her face. She turned face-down and Sgt. Watson kept kneeing her in the back."

With her leg dangling, and screaming from the pain, Farrell was handcuffed and placed in the police cruiser. She was later charged with assaulting a police officer.

Watson testified that he suspected that Farrell was under the influence of alcohol, and that she "took a poke" at him.

"Sgt. Watson provided no explanation as to how Ms. Farrell's tibia was broken, or indeed, the reasons for the bruises on her legs and arms and the loss of a tooth," Justice Beatty noted. "His notes did not record the hammer strike to her left eye, which was basically a sucker punch...he suffered no injury and her injuries were catastrophic."

"Police officers are trained and experienced in handling people who may be intoxicated, drug addicted, mentally ill, armed or violent. They apply their psychological skills and use the minimum of force in maintaining the peace and protecting the public," Beatty said. "That did not happen in this case."

It is pretty hard to get one's mind around what kind of a bully and thug in a position of authority would injure a woman (or anyone) in this manner who clearly had no capacity to resist. That she had done nothing wrong is also sickening and very important, but even if she had, his response would have been a sadistic and grotesque overreaction.

As it turns out, of course, she was exonerated on all the officer's charges against her and she was obviously never guilty of anything other than being in the wrong place at the wrong time, just as are most victims of criminals.

It almost seems as if the OPP officer wanted to beat someone up and the who and why were unimportant.

How this is different from the criminal behaviour he was allegedly entrusted as a civil servant to "police" is beyond me.

Her lawyer is calling for the Special Investigations Unit, which seems to have originally swept this under the rug, to reopen the case now that a judge has clearly exposed the actions of the police officer for what they really were. One can only hope they have the decency to do so.

Sadly, however, when it comes to police criminality, the wheels of justice seem to turn no more here in Canada than they do in the United States.

This is hardly news, though nothing is being done about it. In 2010 the Toronto Star, in an article entitled "Are these cops above the law"  wrote:

The Toronto Star investigated two decades of SIU cases. It found that police officers across the province are treated far differently than civilians when accused of shooting, beating and running over and killing people, some of them innocent bystanders.

Ontario's criminal justice system heavily favours police and gives officers breaks at every turn -- from the SIU, which hardly ever charges officers, to prosecutors, juries and judges.

Where civilians causing similar damage are typically prosecuted, cops walk.

Even in the rare instances when officers are charged and convicted, they almost always avoid jail time.

One citizen quoted in the article called attempting to get justice against the police via their alleged internal watchdogs "a waste of time."

There are a shocking number of cases one can point to. The egregious and almost entirely unpunished incidents of mass false arrest and police abuse during the G20 summit in Toronto in 2010 is an obvious one. The killing of Sammy Yatim in Toronto is another.

There are many, many others. 

In Toronto, as in other Canadian cities, police also regularly harass racialized communities, native and Indigenous communities, and those living in poverty via intimidation campaigns disguised as policing such as the Toronto Anti Violence Intervention Strategy (TAVIS). As Basics Community News Service put it:

While the initiative is new to the downtown east, Toronto's working class and racialized people are quite familiar with TAVIS's reputation, and the extremely aggressive method of policing that is used to establish this increased police presence in neighbourhoods throughout the city. Within the first week of TAVIS hitting the streets in the downtown east, more than 300 people had been arrested or detained, with many more being randomly stopped, carded, ticketed, and harassed since then. Although TAVIS claims that these initiatives are used to reduce crime and increase neighbourhood safety, the only thing that community members have seen is the targeting of the most vulnerable sections of the population: the homeless, racialized and working class youth, and indigenous peoples.

The Toronto police also use the vile practice of "carding" in a similar way. The Star said of this: "A series of Star investigations has shown that individuals with black or brown skin are carded at disproportionately high rates. And that pattern fuels resentment because it's consistent with racial profiling. 

To his credit, Toronto's new Mayor, John Tory, has expressed some interest in changing the situation around carding, but as the Star editorial also noted:

Last April the board passed a new policy on carding requiring officers to have a valid public safety reason for stopping people and asking often-intrusive questions. Individuals who were asked to talk to police under these circumstances were to be advised of their right to say nothing and walk away. And any such encounters weren't to be prolonged by officers simply fishing for information.

These changes represented a sound step toward easing the controversy associated with carding. But they weren't fully enacted by Chief Bill Blair.
In translating board policy into procedures actually guiding officers' behaviour on the street, Blair failed to properly address the right of people to walk away. And he took issue with narrowly restricting the occasions when police could card. Apparently, there's considerable disagreement over what constitutes a "valid public safety" reason.

In other words, the police simply did not honour the new policy. They chose to override the rules that they as public servants were told to operate within and to ignore the oversight of the democratically elected and those appointed by them. 

This is very troubling as most of us would like to think we do not live in a police state. 

Many police officers and departments across the country act as if they are above the law and answer to no one. The problem is this seems to be true far more often then not. This institutional and systemic reality enables and emboldens arbitrary, violent, racist and abusive behaviour by officers inevitably.

This situation can only be changed by elected politicians dispensing with the mythologizing of  the police as all "heroes" and actually exerting democratic and popular control over them. It can only happen when the courts, other officers and prosecutors start treating police officers as they would any other person accused of or being investigated for a crime or abusive, corrupt or violent behaviour.    

The problem is increasingly obvious and is undermining, correctly in my view, people's faith in the impartiality and fairness of the justice system. These incidents reinforce and show that justice is far from blind, evenly applied or remotely fair in Canada. 

The question is when is anyone with any political power or authority going to do something about it?

photo via wikimedia commons

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