“Go find real crooks”

June 10th, 2009
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Readers will have heard about the lady hand-cuffed, detained and fined by police in Laval, Quebec for not holding an escalator handrail in the subway. Bela Kosoian’s rough treatment at the hands of an officer was, according to police, exacerbated by her yelling at them to “do (their) job elsewhere”. This was not to be tolerated according to Laval police spokesman Lieutenant Daniel Guerin.

Quite a turn of events for Montreal, a city generally known for a “live and let live” attitude, where jaywalking seems mandatory. Superficially, it appears to be yet another example of police picking on otherwise law-abiding citizens rather than as Ms Kosoian suggested in the quote above – going to “find real crooks”. We’ve written before in these pages about the related phenomenon of speed traps staffed by groups of strapping young officers while grow-ups and other forms of criminality go apparently unpunished.

This raises the question, are police really becoming glorified by-law officers while ignoring more serious crimes? If so, are they doing so because they want to or because they feel frustrated with a legal system where they can’t expect due process to produce real justice?

Evidence is mixed. One must have sympathy for law enforcement officers and the daily hazards they face. However, this sympathy is tempered by the common petty “finery” and worse behavior. For instance, when my wife had her mirror clipped by an Ottawa transit bus last year she was quickly chased down by a squad car with lights flashing – “Don’t you know you have to stop after colliding with another vehicle?” the officer screamed. It was only when she showed her Alberta driver’s license that he relented. Takes a big man to scream at a woman alone in her car. Unfortunately, much worse behaviour is reported all the time, most recently with a 72-year-old woman tasered by a hulking patrolman in Texas. The woman was belligerent, but you have to wonder, what was the officer thinking? Readers can judge for themselves.

In an odd non sequitur, the Globe article seems to justify the public’s death by a thousand tickets. It remarks that police often use by-laws and regulations to target criminals – anti-loitering provisions to hinder prostitution and drug dealing, motor vehicle infractions against motorcycle gangs. Rather than justifying by-law exuberance (more often than not generated by an apparent revenue-generating imperative), this argument suggests that it’s often too difficult to nail felons through due process (think Al Capone and tax-evasion) so they must resort to unconventional methods.

There may be something to this, because there is other evidence of this problem. Proponents of mandatory minimum sentences essentially argue that judges (or more broadly speaking, “the system”) cannot be trusted to impose penalties fitting the crimes. Similarly, proponents of victims rights maintain that criminals are perpetually getting the benefit of the doubt, to the exclusion of those they wronged.

That said, ineffective policing – or the perception of same – has resurfaced at the centre a couple of recent cases of vigilante justice. In Toronto, a Chinatown merchant detained a shoplifter, while in Oklahoma a pharmacist gunned down a would-be thief. In yet more evidence of the nature of the “system”, both men face charges, the latter first-degree murder. The shooting, reminiscent of a similar incident in Calgary some years ago, sparked some pithy commentary by Dennis Miller on Fox News.

While no system is perfect, ample evidence of misdirected policing and at best erratic sentencing must contribute to the public’s frustration and even to some wanting to take the law into their own hands. Ticketing the public may be justified, but misses the obvious requirement of prioritization and accountability. What does the public (who merely pay the police) want, more speed traps or crack downs on gangs and other violent criminals? I was thinking of that again today as I saw a fleet of tow trucks dragging cars away to the impound lot ahead of a street cleaning crew. But maybe they were impounding criminals’ cars under the guise of by-law enforcement. Yeah, that must be it.

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By John Weissenberger