The thin blue line: police accountability

Michael Spratt
On July 24, the Ottawa police were called to a coffee shop to respond to a disturbance. There were reports that a man had attempted to grope a woman. By the time the police arrived at the coffee shop, the man had left. The police pursued. Minutes later, 37-year-old Abdirahman Abdi was dead.
Abdi was not carrying any weapons. Only the police were armed. 

Witnesses described police officers on top of a grounded Abdi beating him with batons and spraying him with pepper spray. It was clear to onlookers that Abdi was in serious medical distress. These same witnesses reported that the police officers involved in Abdi’s death seemed in no hurry to administer CPR.

Videos taken by members of the public show a beaten and handcuffed Abdi lying motionless on the concrete for 10 minutes before paramedics arrived.

And another black man is dead at the hands of the police. Ottawa may have its very own Sammy Yatim. The Special Investigations Unit is investigating Abdi’s death. Regardless of the outcome of the SIU’s investigation, the situation does not reflect well on the Ottawa police.

I have little confidence that the police will be held to account — just Google “SIU police cleared.” The odds are forever in the police’s favour. In the rare case where the police are held accountable for gratuitous violence, civilian cellphone videos have played a key role. Perhaps this is why the police attempted to confiscate the phones of the witnesses who watched Abdi die.

It is time to require all police officers to wear a body camera — not to record the public but to record them. 

Police officers — inside and outside of our courtrooms — enjoy an air of credibility. Police officers take notes, they are experienced witnesses and they typically enjoy the support of their follow officers. There is a thick blue line, but, yes, police officers lie — even when under oath.

But in a straight credibility contest between a police officer and a civilian, the police officer enjoys a distinct advantage. It is for this reason that video evidence is so powerful and in many cases necessary for justice to be done.

Police video recorders ensure that there exists an accurate evidentiary record; they would also shorten litigation and, ultimately, save the justice system valuable resources.

Most importantly, police body cameras would hold police to account and moderate their use of gratuitous violence.

In his 2013 thesis “The Blue Line on Thin Ice: Police Use of Force Modifications in the Era of Camera phones and YouTube”, published in the British Journal of Criminology, Greg Brown found that police tend to change their behaviour when they believe they are being filmed:

“Over half of the police officers that participated in this study’s survey admitted to having modified their use of force practices (either now using less force or using force less often, or both) because of the prevalence of citizen surveillance and the ability for the public to video record the activities of the police.”
So more than half of the 231 officers interviewed by Brown said they use less force, or use force less often, if they believe they are being filmed. Brown, a 28-year veteran of the Ottawa police force, knows what he is talking about and his findings are shocking.

Police are less violent when they are being recorded. This is a troubling finding — should the police not be acting appropriately regardless of whether they are being filmed or not?

We should expect the police to always use appropriate force. But they don’t.

This is no surprise — at least not in Ottawa where the Ontario Court of Appeal found that Ottawa police officers arbitrarily detained an accused, violated his rights to counsel on two separate occasions, illegally searched him and then intentionality and gratuitously inflicted pain by standing on his ankles, violating his “rights to be free from intentional infliction of pain while being in custody.”

Yet, Ottawa police Chief Charles Bordeleau has consistently resisted the notion that his police officer should receive continuing Charter education. We train our officers on how to use violence but not on how to respect the limits of their authority.

After Abdi’s death, Matt Skoff, president of the Ottawa Police Association, dismissed the concerns of Black Lives Matter protesters as “rhetoric.”

This is the attitude of the thin blue line. 

It is time we turn the cameras of the surveillance state toward the police — not for their protection but for ours.

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