It’s hard to trust the police in Montréal these days. “Officer 728” is a household name, known for her abuse of power, which was caught on video. There was also a famous CCTV video of a prostrate man being brutally kicked repeatedly by the Montréal police. This problem isn’t restricted to Montréal either. Recently a police officer in Vancouver was caught on video punching a cyclist in the face while putting him in handcuffs.
Technology and the abuse of police power
I used to largely dismiss reports of police abuses of power. When I saw graffiti saying, “eff the police” or something to that effect, I used to chalk it up to conspiracy theorists and delinquent youths. Now that it’s all on Youtube, it’s harder to ignore the problem.
(I also used to dismiss those who spray-painted “burn the banks” in a number of parts of Montréal as conspiracy theorists, but since 2008, I can kind of see where they’re coming from.)
We’re entering into an age when abuses of power by police are being caught on tape more and more often. I don’t think that police abusing their power is a new thing, or even that the rates have changed recently. I’m of the position that it might just be more visible because of the recent development that nearly everyone is carrying around a camera in their pocket that can instantly upload video of police brutality to Youtube. The Google Glass project (and the clones that are sure to follow) may make this even more common.
This is unsettling to me, partly because it might mean that a lot of the times I dismissed claims of police abuse, I was in the wrong.
We should all be legitimately outraged by this
More importantly though, this should make us all angry because this is not how justice works in Canada. Even if the robbery suspect was completely guilty of every crime the police suspected, we don’t allow individual police officers to dole out their own personal vengeance in the form of physical beatings. We certainly don’t allow groups of police officers to do so against suspected criminals as they lie helpless in the snow, and most emphatically, there is no place in Canadian justice for criminals to be punished in this way (or any other) without due process or without even having been formally charged with a crime.
A police officer punching a restrained person is much worse than a regular citizen punching another citizen. This is because the police are, so to speak, the final guarantee that the government has power over its citizens and that there is the rule of law in a country. The most basic reason for others not to steal your stuff is that if they do, there’s a good chance that the police will come and take away their freedom in such a way that it’s not worth it for most people to engage in that behaviour. All laws largely work on the same principle. Sure, there’s other sanctions that a government can use, like taxation, but even that is underwritten by the threat of police coming and putting you in prison if you break the tax laws.
So, when a police officer physically abuses a citizen, he shakes our faith in the proper functioning of the machinery of government. This makes the issue not just one of bad PR for a particular police department, but one of general faith in our country to work in a just and equitable way. Further, if the police are vigilantes and there is no recourse, it legitimizes vigilante justice by the people against the police.
This means that when a police officer abuses his power, there must be some recourse that is transparent, timely and just. There can’t even be the appearance that the police are above the law, otherwise what you will see is ordinary citizens taking the law into their own hands to bring the police to justice, which is a very scary prospect.
Ordinary citizens are taking the law into their own hands to bring the police to justice
In response to the issues I have described above, as well as a number of much less famous examples of abuse of police power during the protests in Montréal, there has been a movement toward the use of social media to identify the police who are abusing their power. This is being done by citizens who believe that there has been abuse of power by police in Montréal, and that the normal channels of addressing these abuses have been of no avail.
They are collecting photos, videos, identification numbers, names and addresses of police officers, cataloguing their transgressions and calling for retribution.
The police are calling this “intimidation.” They are calling for it to be taken down. They’re (rightly) complaining that there is no way for a police officer who is wrongly accused in this way to clear his name, and that the police, and even some non-police are being put in danger because of this.
What needs to happen
I have not been involved in the student protests in Montréal. I have never been beaten by the police. I generally believe that if I call 911, thanks to my skin colour, it will be the “good guys” who show up at my door. That said, I can understand why someone who was abused by a police officer might be tempted to post this information out of frustration at the ineffectiveness of the official recourse against such abuse.
In some ways, the police have been implicitly training us to use these methods if we want anything to get done: Likely the police officer from Vancouver would have gotten away with punching the cyclist in the face if the cyclist’s friend hadn’t caught it on video and posted it to Youtube.
If the police want us to use official channels to address police abuses, they have to give us reason to think that it’s better to do that than to just appeal to the Internet for justice. Politically-motivated arrests of people for posting “intimidating” things online won’t cut it.
I think we will only see a real change in public attitudes toward police brutality given the following three conditions.
- The official channels must be transparent. It must be clear to everyone that something is being done, and we have to see that officers who abuse their power are appropriately punished. Confidence in the relationship between the state and its citizens is what’s at stake, and so the solution must be one that publicly restores confidence.
- Official channels must be timely. The old adage, “justice delayed is justice denied” applies here. If citizens get impatient waiting for justice to be applied, they may be tempted to take it into their own hands.
- Finally, official recourse against police abuse must be just. This is where an official means of recourse against police brutality could actually outdo Internet vigilantes. Internet vigilante justice will always be faster and more transparent than anything official could ever be, but an official channel can enforce punishments fitting to the crime, and can claim legitimacy in a way that vigilantes never can.
If a police officer publicly faced criminal charges, rather than just a “paid leave of absence” followed by “counselling” and this happened in short order after an accusation of abuse, this would do a lot to restore faith in official channels. The people of Montréal might even learn that the legitimate checks and balances are preferable to pursuing vigilante justice through social media.