Sunday, June 8, 2014

Us Versus Them

A lot of people hate cops.

This is probably not a revelation to most of us, but it's really begun to sink in for me as an anti-authoritarian loner dry gulches three RCMP officers in Moncton, and less than a week later, two Las Vegas police officers are shot while eating pizza.

I grew up around police officers; my next door neighbour worked in a number of roles with Edmonton Police Service, and his neighbour was an RCMP constable.  When he moved out, another one moved in, when they weren't at work, they were both friendly fixtures of the block we lived on in Leduc.  The fact that they were cops never seemed to be a big deal to anyone else, so I grew up seeing the police as people first, and law enforcers second.

This is probably the main reason why, nine years ago, I took Fenya out of school for the day to go to the funeral for Mayerthorpe's Fallen Four.  After a vicious monster had taken the lives of four men who had not wronged him personally but who were serving the needs of their community and society, I felt a tremendous need to go and pay my respects in person.  I was gratified to see so many citizens there, as well as members of the policing community from all over North America, including one from Boston, who had paid his own way there.  When asked why he went to such efforts, he said only that when one of his colleagues went down in the line, there was always a 'horseman' at the funeral, and he wanted to repay the sentiment, using his vacation time to put in his appearance.

Since the police are also human, there are inevitably going to be a few officers that go into that line of work for the wrong reasons; because they like to scuffle, because they like to impose their will on others, because it's a way to overcome their insecurities.  As a result of this, and a number of other reasons, not everyone has positive interactions with the police, and not just those who are breaking the law.  I'm sure there are those who read about disciplinary hearings or officers up on charges of their own with a shaking of the head, a clucking of the tongue, and words along the lines of 'well, what did you expect?'.  Still others look at the horror in Moncton or elsewhere and think to themselves, 'Good'.

People think nothing of saying they don't like the police, or they hate cops.  Where I work, we administer the pension plan for most of the non-RCMP police officers in the province, and we can't send their paperwork in a plan envelope, for fear of disclosing that they are cops.  This partly an operational decision for undercover officers, but surely has to take into consideration the possibility of cop haters in the member's own neighbourhood doing something regrettable with this knowledge.

I thought we had come a long way from the 1970s and the countercultural warcry of "Off the pigs!"  I thought, as a society, we had moved passed a lot of our prejudices.  Don't get me wrong, I think we still have a long ways to go, so long as two guys can get beat up for holding hands in public, or any of us remain afraid to speak up when a co-worker or taxi driver brazenly uses racial slurs, but the idea that a segment of our population is happiest when expressing disdain and hatred towards those who take considerable risk to protect all of us is just unfathomable to me.  Aren't these our neighbours too?

In Edmonton, our pendulum seems to swing between adversarial and collborative policing.  Under previous administrations, there was a palpable 'us vs. them' dynamic in everything from the paramilitary uniforms and demeanor of many of the officers to the way discipline and civilian oversight was handled.  This culminated in the Overtime Sting controversy, wherein a number of officers surveilled a critical newspaper columnist as well as the chair of Edmonton's civilian police commission, in hopes of catching them driving home from a bar while over the legal limit.

Thankfully our last two police chiefs have been committed to the idea of community policing, and it seems like things are improving.  Meanwhile, however, men and women who have, for whatever reasons, decided to play a role in keeping our society safe by enforcing the rules and maintaining public safety, are finding themselves increasingly targeted by disturbed individuals who feel their liberties are somehow being infringed.  Where will it lead?

Last night I finally got to see the science fiction film Elysium, by Neil Blomkamp, in which the rich and privileged live in a pristine orbital habitat where disease and aging have been eliminated, while the rest of humanity toils in a an increasingly dystopian Earth.  The police here are no longer members of the community (such as it is), but merciless androids, bereft of compassion and context.  In real life overseas, drones and UAVs play an increasing role in warfare, ostensibly to protect the lives of our own troops.  Meanwhile though, the idea of quadcopters to assist North American police with finding or tracking suspects grows in popularity, and many considering a career in law enforcement either have second thoughts, or move deeper into this adversarial stance, and accept a workday spent in something analogous to an occupying army.

Peace officers enforce bylaws without the benefit of sidearms, but tactical response units get more and more militarized, with fully automatic weapons,  military camouflage,  and armoured vehicles.  Why?  Because criminals are getting more equipped and better organized, and a single person is more than capable of visiting grievous amounts of tragedy on the enforcement community without warning, as Moncton, Mayerthorpe, Las Vegas, and too many other locations have proven. In a way, it is sadly understandable for the police to think of the world in terms of 'us versus them.'

But that doesn't make it right.

Cops should be our neighbours.  They should be able to live among us and share our hopes and fears, and not have to worry about an armed and angry individual executing them for their decision to help us maintain our rights and safety.  I hope brave, decent people continue to volunteer for this often thankless role, and continue to call out the damaged and dangerous individuals that somehow manage to elude the screening process and end up behind a badge.

But more importantly, I hope we can take the time to remember that, in the end, there is no 'them', and at one point or another, law-breakers and law enforcers started out in the same place: as our neighbours.

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