Ninety-one Canadian police officers have been docked a day’s pay each for failing to wear identifying tags on their uniforms during the G20 Summit demonstrations in Toronto last summer. So far, no one has been charged with illegally suspending civil liberties in the city’s downtown core.
We now know that Toronto police Chief Bill Blair signed a request that the Ontario government enact an obscure provision of the Public Works Act giving police extraordinary powers within a marked security zone during the summit. We still aren’t certain who led officers to believe that right extended five metres beyond the security perimeter, nor who decided to keep the rule secret until it was put into use.
We don’t know if anybody told police officers to pretend the rule applied all over the downtown core, or if they just took that upon themselves. And we still don’t know whose idea it was for those 91 officers to take off their badges before going to work – or if indeed they made 91 individual decisions.
Given this lack of knowledge, it’s hard to say whether a fine of one day’s pay is appropriate for the officers who showed up in incomplete uniforms that day. When considering punishment, whether for a small clothing misdemeanour or a more serious offence – say bashing a man’s head in with a big club – motive is always a major consideration.
Say, for instance, there was no conspiracy among the 91, that each on his own decided to leave the badge home that day so that it didn’t get dirty. Or say there was a rumour going round the police stations that black block protesters were planning a campaign of rip-and-run badge theft, and nobody wanted to chance having their pay docked to cover the missing equipment. The loss of a day’s pay would be a pretty serious penalty for someone whose only concern was to protect the badge.
On the other hand, if those 91 officers entered into a conspiracy to remove their identification so that they could bash heads, round up innocent protesters, misapply laws, and generally trample on civil liberties without being identified, a slightly higher penalty might apply – dismissal from the force springs to mind, possibly followed by a lengthy prison term, at the discretion of a judge.
The SIU, the body charged with investigating allegations of police misconduct, has already looked into charges that police used excessive force during the demonstrations, and found them groundless. And that would have been that, if it weren’t for those pesky video cameras. Footage widely available on the internet seems to contradict the SIU’s conclusions.
By now, anyone who’s interested must have seen Adam Nobody first walking, then running, from a gang of policemen in full armour, who knock him down and then climb all over him. The mass of black-clad bodies obscures the action, so we don’t know for certain what the rapid and repeated arm movements of the police signify.
It would be easy to jump to the conclusion that they are beating Mr. Nobody about the head, causing the horrible facial injuries he later displayed, but we don’t know. They may have been tickling him, or swatting mosquitoes. He may have gone home and smashed himself in the face with the frying pan in order to incriminate policemen who were simply serving and protecting him, as is their duty.
These are only some of the things we don’t know about the conduct of the police during the G20 demonstrations. The question now is how best to clear these matters up. Since June, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association has been calling for a public inquiry. They are joined by Amnesty International, the NDP, and thousands of citizens who found themselves locked up for 40 hours without food or water or access to bathrooms for participating in a peaceful, legal protest.
In response, Chief Blair insists that his hands are tied because the SIU is busy reinvestigating the matter. “I can’t just go charging in, in the middle of an SIU investigation,” he said in Victoria this week. “There are laws. There is a process.”
Citizens, be thankful. Here at last there is evidence, clear and indisputable, that your police force is working as it should. The chief of police himself has declared it: the law will be followed, process will be observed. There will be no arbitrary judgments, no abuse of power, no rounding up of innocents, no illegal detentions, no beatings, no hidden identities.
This is very reassuring. The last thing anyone wants is to see good cops treated like bad ones. Police officers who did their duty last summer without breaking laws or abusing their power don’t deserve to be treated like criminals just because of the actions of a few bad apples.
In Canada, that kind of treatment is reserved for citizens.
Al Pope won the Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in BC/Yukon in 2010 and 2002. His novel, Bad Latitudes, is available in bookstores.