Spirit Quest - Advice for RCMP

Spirit Quest

Robert Paulson can restore public esteem for the RCMP
By The Rev. Dr. Hanns F. Skoutajan
True North Perspective

“When constabulary duty’s to be done, to be done, a policeman’s lot is not a happy one, happy one,” according to Gilbert and Sullivan.

That duty has achieved a certain poignancy in Canada at this time when our country is undergoing a major change in the leadership of its national police force. William Elliott, the only non-cop commissioner of the force ever, is being replaced by Robert Paulson. The new head of the RCMP is a policeman who has come up over the chain of command after spending seven years in the military.

This change comes at a very critical time. The RCMP has always and everywhere, even internationally, been held in the highest esteem. It's not just because of “Rosemary I Love You,” or the stunning red serge uniform and the fabulous musical ride. But of late, that uniform has acquired some not insignificant wrinkles and the famous police band has sounded some discordant notes.

The new commissioner has, right off the bat, announced that he will get to the bottom of the sexual harassment scandal within the force. However, it is not enough to do away with sexism among some officers but also with the protective mentality of its reputation and power. This, it has been revealed, reaches into the highest ranks of the force.

I recall the good old days when we children were encouraged to look up to the policeman on the block (where is he/she today except in a cruiser?) We were taught to consider the officer as a friend and to trust him. It was only a him in those days. Granted our society has changed enormously in even shocking ways, along with a different attitude to power.

I know little about Commissioner Paulson except that he is bilingual, concerned about transparency and tough. These are undoubtedly important attributes in a day when the scope of crime control includes not only the apprehension of the unshaven thug who broke into your car, but also the white collar embezzler whom we trusted with our lives’ savings, and everything in between. Of course there is the protection of our country and its institutions from foreign interference that needs to be dealt with also.

I am tempted to ask whether law and order is enough to keep a nation safe, free, prosperous and just. In Toronto the police slogan is “To Serve and Protect” but sometimes one wonders, to serve and protect whom.

The image many of us have of hordes of black garbed riot police with helmets, shields and batons, violently moving into peaceful protesters has left a rather bitter taste. The tragic event at the Vancouver International Airport in which a newly arrived man from Poland was tasered to death has done nothing to enhance the reputation of the force. And there is much more on the docket.

I also get worried when police solidarity is demonstrated in the tens of thousands of fellow officers  from all across the country and indeed abroad, marching in solemn array to the graveside of a fallen comrade. What inevitably comes across is a kind of Us versus Them mentality.

Is being a tough, smart cop, even an educated and intelligent officer enough? Do we also need one who is convinced that the force he heads belongs to the people, not just the government that pays him?

I have no doubt about the complexity of the demands made on our police forces. It varies from province to province and territory. That may change as British Columbia is wondering about instituting a provincial force of its own. Of course there are also provincial as well as federal legislation that have to be enforced.

Public relations has gotten a bad rap, often seen as gimmicky to win public favour. It is nevertheless very important. It is  seen best in specific instances.

Many years ago I was a minister of a church in a less than wealthy area of the city of Toronto. Our congregation sponsored a very large youth movement which entailed hosting a drop in centre where often more than a hundred young people congregated on a Saturday night. The Metro Police assigned a community relations officer, and yes, he was a bona fide policeman, to our operation. He was stellar, a person that anyone felt they could come to for help or advice. When he retired  he was replaced  by another officer who had begun his career as a London Bobby. He quickly inherited his predecessor’s good will.

To add to this list of qualities for a good cop, compassion is not to be dismissed.  Unfortunately, that quality is too often misunderstood  as softness, being a pushover for those with malignant intentions. I believe it need not be so. What is paramount is that all in authority, at every level of guardianship, need a sense that “they” are on “our” side.

My estimation of the police was enhanced greatly by the action of one officer. When my father died suddenly at a crowded downtown restaurant at high noon, emergency services were immediately at hand and so was a very special and compassionate police officer who stuck with my mother, drove her to the hospital, waited with her until the inevitable had been determined. He went with her to the emergency room, removed the wedding band from my father’s finger, placed in her hand and then drove her home. I am not sure whether he transgressed police protocol. Unfortunately mother was too upset to get his identity or to follow up with his superiors. I ought to have done that but didn’t.

Public relations need not be a gimmick but a genuine manifestation of a human spirit that I believe is very much alive in most police officers. However, it needs to be valued, encouraged and if necessary enforced through training and from the top desk down. Above all the police must never be confused with the military.

Constabulary duty need not be an unhappy one. Giving body to that spirit is my advice to the newly installed Commissioner Paulson.

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