The Braidwood Inquiry focuses Canadian attention on a single deadly outcome of police violence. Robert Dziekanski’s death was unusual, but only because a bystander recorded it. That digital video was sufficiently explicit that it swept away false justifications of RCMP participants. Except for public access to this video, the Polish traveler’s end would have been one more barely noticed police involved death. Even with the video, all four officers returned to duty and were soon officially cleared by RCMP investigators who devoted main efforts toward exonerating their members.
Deaths of people under police control are not particularly rare. The RCMP published a report on 80 such fatalities from 2002 to 2006, more than half in British Columbia – an unexplained anomaly. No doubt, some deaths were unavoidable outcomes. Yet, others linger in public consciousness because they are not reasonably explained. Tainted justice is self-evident when police circle their wagons to reflexively defend colleagues accused of misconduct.
Bothered by ineffective accountability, civil libertarians are troubled also by unnecessary use of force. Police may be forced to moderate future actions because they are subject to unprecedented scrutiny by photo and security video, cell phones or pocket cameras. Police trying to prevent one person from photographing a scene find themselves photographed by other spectators. However, Britain recently invoked a law to criminalize anyone photographing a police officer. Citizens largely disregard the statute.
One psychologist suggests that police violence is encouraged by expanded inventories of weapons and wider use of body armor and tactical assault training. The act of dressing in body armor and the discomfort of wearing it remind police officers of dangers they might face. They are encouraged to use violence by the anticipation of it. As Dr. Mike Webster said,
“When you think the only tool you have is a hammer, then the whole world begins looking like a nail.”
Behavior of the RCMP probably ranks reasonably well in comparison to police around the world. It is easy to find outrageous incidents in almost all nations. The Los Angeles Police Department had 320 accusations of racial profiling lodged against them in 2007. After investigating, they found that not a single allegation was true. That was the sixth year in a row that not a single charge of racial profiling was to be found justified.
A surprising example of police violence comes from Portland Oregon, a city usually noted for being calmly progressive. This 2004 event resulted in no convictions but a civil suit by the dead man’s family is still before the courts in 2009.
William T. Grigsby, 24, was shot by bullets 13 times, hit 22 times with beanbags and Tasered four or five times, after running from Portland police. Although he was unresponsive after numerous shots were fired, police made no effort to provide medical aid, even when one officer noticed that it appeared Grigsby was “bleeding out” Thirty-seven more minutes passed as officers fired rounds at him from a Sage 37 mm projectile-launcher, a police dog bit and dragged him, and officers fired two additional Taser rounds at Grigsby, who hadn’t moved for nearly an hour. Medics pronounced him dead at the scene. The medical examiner found that immediate medical care probably would have prevented Grigsby from bleeding to death because none of his wounds was immediately fatal.
Is there a solution? Can state sanctioned violence be controlled or reduced? Commenting on another Northern Insight article, one reader said,
“The top brass knows how many [people with elevated Social Dominance Orientation] are hiding within law-enforcement and this is the primary reason for extreme resistance to civilian oversight.”
One thing is clear in my view. The law enforcement community actively resists effective civilian review and oversight. There will be no significant change in police management until citizens insist on radical restructuring and government imposes it on these public services.