Back in 2004, urban systems guru Jane Jacobs published a slim volume entitled; “Dark Days Ahead” that quickly became a best seller. Jacobs painted a dismal view of societal failings that, if not arrested, would condemn our civilization into a downward spiral of ultimate failure. The Chapter entitled “Self-Policing Subverted” addressed seemingly widespread problems with the self-policing practices of the learned professions – architecture, medicine, engineering, the law, and the reluctance or failure of their professional colleges or associations to act for protection of the public or in defense of their treasured professional tenets. Here is what she had to say about the police:
“Police officers form organizations too, which are the most self-protective of all. Even when police don’t organize into police benevolent associations, they are exaggeratedly protective of one another. Police can seldom be depended on to police themselves. ….. When police crimes are unmasked, it is usually done by investigative journalists, sometimes helped by brave informants from the inside and increasingly helped by scientists such as forensic biologists and demographers. The standard reform attempted is a new layer of oversight: a civilian review board to receive and deal with accusations by the public…. Short public memory – every scandal is only a nine-day wonder – and sincere but sentimentalized public appreciation of the risks police run tend to undermine civilian review boards as long-term remedies.”
Jacobs goes on to state:
“There is no quicker way for a profession to lose public respect than to cover up, institutionally, for members who have done arrant wrong.”
For police to serve with public consent and cooperation, that public must be able to respect those who perform the policing function. When trust and confidence exists the community gives permission for police to function based on a sense of legitimacy. Lacking legitimacy in the eyes of the public, the police become an arbitrary force undeserving of cooperation and support.
Confidence in policing is high in Canada compared to international peers. A World Values survey found that more than 80% of Canadians reported having, “a great deal” or “quite a lot,” of confidence in police. This compares favourably with confidence levels in the United Kingdom and the United States, and is on par with those in Australia and Switzerland. The disquieting news is that trend data from Canadian public opinion polls suggest a decrease in public trust in police officers. Ipsos Reid polls comparing 2003 with 2011 found that public trust in police officers dropped 16%. A 2010 survey by EKOS found a decrease over previous years. Evidence of failing support strongly suggests the need for attention to probity and first principles. The second of Peel’s Nine Principles of Policing directs officers, “To recognize always that the power of the police to fulfill their functions and duties is dependent on public approval of their existence, actions and behaviour, and on their ability to secure and maintain public respect.” It’s all very well to be faithful to those who you work with and for leadership to encourage the qualities of teamwork and loyalty, but misplaced loyalty and a failure to live up to better instincts and values will ultimately damage the trust and confidence of the public that police officers are sworn to protect, and lest anyone forget, pay for salaries and those treasured benefits. Preserving the public trust requires an overarching commitment to integrity, truth and honour.