THUNDER BAY – VIEWPOINT – I am sure some folks on the political left will be angry by this article but stand in line because I have been angry about this topic for a long time.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford is going to lower the educational requirements for new officers to deal with the difficulty police forces have been facing in attracting people to the profession. I apologize for the sarcasm but, if only someone had been talking about police recruitment twenty years ago. Someone was, and he is now writing articles for Netnewsledger.
For years, I was heavily involved in the Police Association both locally and provincially. I enjoyed the work, but it was frustrating at times when people could not see what was right in front of them.
In 1997 during a contract arbitration, I outlined the challenges facing Thunder Bay officers.
This city ranked extremely high in all the wrong areas. Drug use and arrests, violence, mental health, and addictions just to name a few. When I see people talk about these issues today as if someone should do something about them, I want to cry or scream.
Twenty-five years ago, had the resources and commitment been placed where it needed to be, perhaps the situation in our city would not be so dire. But the public was indifferent or simply didn’t care, until the problems became impossible to ignore.
During this period, police oversight became the favourite pastime of politicians and special interest groups, demanding more and more accountability. I feared the consequence of these actions and what impact they would have on the police profession. Most of those concerns have proven to be correct.
Many of the arguments for police oversight were based on the belief that the police could not be trusted to investigate themselves. Governments then created oversight bodies, that themselves have no oversight.
So, these groups are allowed to act without any accountability for their actions while investigating the police. Create an unaccountable body to investigate a profession that already had numerous layers of oversight. What could possibly go wrong?
I witnessed firsthand, investigators from these agencies lie to lay charges against officers who faced jail sentences for doing their job. Despite this, the layers of police oversight kept coming and some agencies kept expanding their role to the point where officers just had to show up and they would be investigated.
Do you recall the recent incident on the James St. bridge where a member of the public was hanging on to a woman and the officer climbed over the railing to keep the women from falling.
Now, had the officer not been successful and the woman fell and was injured or worse, that officer would have been investigated to see if he had done anything wrong while risking his life. Does anyone see the logic in that? Does anyone think this is a positive recruitment tool for the profession?
Now many would argue that this is no big deal, of course that officer would be cleared but do we really need to waste limited resources over incidents such as this? Are we really sending the message to police officers that we will have their backs. The increase in the demands for even more police accountability would suggest no. Imagine where a suspect aggressively resisted arrest, tried to grab an officer’s gun or tried to shoot the officer. Think about how that “investigation into the officer” would play out especially in today’s politically charged environment.
It was inevitable that recruitment would become a challenge which is why I started sounding the alarm. Even fellow union officials thought I was mistaken. I asked why would anyone apply for this job given the constant attacks against this profession? This was twenty years ago. Much of what has taken place since has only made things worse. Let me give you a harsh example of what could happen.
A police officer is chasing a suspect who has grabbed your child and is fleeing in a car. The police are pursuing to save your child. They go through red lights; cars are almost hit but your child’s life is in danger. The police were able to get your child back safely and no one was hurt The police are called heroes for their actions. But what if we change that scenario just a little.
The bad guy this time is not so lucky, he crashes into another vehicle, he, or someone else is injured or killed, and now, the police officers are investigated to see if they committed any crimes while trying to save your child? If it is the bad guy that is hurt, these agencies are there to protect the person who kidnapped your child.
Farfetched? No, it is not. We have reached the point now, where any member of the public can lay a complaint against an officer even if they were not involved in the police interaction.
If you believe that there is something wrong with this system, is it a stretch to think that situations like this are what leads to people to leave the profession and others not even bothering to apply? I have always wanted to ask those who keep screaming for more police oversight one question: your child is about to be shot by someone, but I have the chance to shoot them before they shoot your child. Do you want me to shoot? And if you do, do you think that after I saved your child, I should be investigated for taking that shot because that is what these people continue to advocate for.
When you target a profession, and there is no question, the police profession has been targeted for several decades, why is anyone surprised at a shortage of police officers. They are leaving in droves south of the border. The main thrust of police coverage for two decades has seen negative stories on top of blame pushed on police for issues far beyond their control. But police do make good cannon fodder for politicians looking to escape scrutiny. It is hard to do this topic justice in one article, but the lack of police recruitment is not a local issue, it is North America wide.
Within three years in most Ontario jurisdictions, an officer will make more than $100,000 per year not including overtime. In addition, the pension is better than most along with a good benefit package. Certainly, the wages and benefits are not preventing people from applying for this job. Might I suggest there are other reasons why people are avoiding a career that used to see many applicants yearly. Perhaps the constant criticism, the outrage by politicians who don’t have a clue what took place, and the constant need to blame officers for policies they had nothing to do with, are contributing to this shortage. Policing is no longer a career that is viewed in a positive light by the people looking to obtain media coverage for their agenda.
The recent announcement by the Premier, is the exact opposite of what took place almost twenty years ago when the push was on to have a higher education level for officers being hired. The thought was, the higher the education, the better the officer would be. It appears that is no longer important, so the Premier is attempting to attract more people to the profession. So, what else could help.
First, stop blindly accepting the narrative about police officers that does not withstand even the most basic scrutiny. Are there bad officers, of course and I even expect a few critics will take a moment to remind folks about my much paraded but overwhelmingly inaccurate history, which will be its own article in the future.
I worked with some incredible officers who were as brave as anyone I ever met. Celebrate them more often. One former officer, the “Bounty Hunter”, was among the best. This nickname was given to this man because of his incredible ability to locate people with outstanding warrants. We do not hear about those officers. Instead, the public is provided stories about a police situation gone wrong, instead of the overwhelming majority that go right. There is one truism. In most cases, you are seeing police officers deal with situations that have a very good chance of going wrong. It is only because of the professionalism of those women and men that there are not more negative consequences.
Police leaders need to push back on stories that they know are false. It serves no legitimate purpose to simply accept a narrative because you are attempting to limit the noise or backlash. I am of the belief that the more this is enabled, the worse it will become, and I cannot be the only one who believes this has had an impact on recruiting. Whether here in Ontario or across the United States, why would anyone want to subject themselves to be the target for that kind of media driven keyboard rage.
The media could also help by covering the story fully, instead of taking the easy way out. The police are not responsible for homelessness. The police are not addiction experts, nor have four years of training in mental health. These issues are governmental challenges, and some of them were created a long time ago but it is so much easier when things don’t go perfectly to blame the police instead of pointing the camera at the lack of action by the leaders who should be doing more.
Policing is one of those professions that everyone is an expert on because they watch Law and Order. Even politicians now routinely comment on videos of police interactions long before the whole story is revealed. One such local story to this day was absurdly portrayed by our local media, and there were a few high-ranking politicians jumping on the outrage bandwagon without having a clue about what really took place.
Locally, there are countless stories that go unreported that involve officers risking their lives to save others. It is my hope that in future articles, I will be able to portray that reality and to try and turn the attitude of some towards a more cordial acceptance of the folks in blue.
This is a complex issue that is going to take a long time to fix. There are cities in the US that have boarded up downtowns because of the George Floyd protests, a horrible situation that should never have happened. But what happened to Mr. Floyd is not the norm, it is the exception. It was a tragedy, but to use that terrible day to initiate broad policy changes that impact community safety, does a disservice to the hundreds of thousands of men and women working every day to keep that country safe. It is funny that with a camera in every pocket, we only see video’s trying to catch the bad officers, not the excellent work done by the majority. Strange coincidence indeed.
Saying “I told you so” is not meant to showcase my fortune telling abilities but to shine a light on the people who should have listened but didn’t. The light rarely shines on those ultimately responsible for what takes place.
We have a problem in North America, it is a shortage of people willing to risk their lives for you when you call at 3 am because someone is breaking into your house or is assaulting your family member. Do you want one officer responding from the other side of town because there is a staff shortage, or would you like three officers responding from down the street because we again view the police profession as honourable. For those old enough to remember that TV show, when you call Car 54 to respond, they may not come because there are not enough staff to fill that car.
The overwhelming majority of police officers in this city, province and country do a most often thankless job. They get judged by the minority not the vast majority. Are those videos you see, truly reflective of a profession that received 13.5 million calls for service in Canada in 2019. Those numbers demonstrate quite clearly that day in and day out, police officers on the whole conduct themselves, professionally, effectively and with honour while keeping you safe.
Maybe sending that message to your children, maybe having that discussion in the public forum instead of the media portraying this profession constantly in a negative light, may do more for police recruitment, then the Premiers initiative will be able to achieve. Hold police accountable, absolutely. But demand police be perfect in what is almost always imperfect circumstances needs to stop if you want to attract people to this profession.
Until then, do not be surprised that when calls for help go out, very few if anyone may be responding in a timely fashion because no one is applying for the job. My question to the demanding public is, will anyone with the power to change this perception, learn from the inaction of 20 years ago. History would suggest no. Just a thought.
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