HTTP/1.0 200 OK Content-Type: text/html If You Can't Trust The Cops ...
Pubdate: Fri, 09 Jan 2004
Source: Globe and Mail (Canada)
Copyright: 2004, The Globe and Mail Company
Author: Jean-Paul Brodeur
Note: Jean-Paul Brodeur is a professor at the Ecole de criminologie of the
Universite de Montreal and a former director of its International Centre for
Comparative Criminology.


A Toronto corruption scandal won't undermine our basic faith in police. But
it may make us look more critically at systems than at scapegoats, says
criminologist Jean-Paul Brodeur

Six Toronto police officers were charged this week in a corruption
investigation; the charges include conspiracy, obstruction of justice
(falsifying notes and records), assault causing bodily harm, and theft.

Canadians are famously positive about their police. What other country has a
police officer as its symbol? The Mountie is on everything from T-shirts to
the cover of restaurant guides. We tend to respond to revelations of
corruption by denying that there's a systemic problem -- it's just a few
"rotten apples" -- and we punish scapegoats rather than examine the deeper

Often, police successfully defend themselves against complaints and criminal
charges by referring to what might be called "noble deviance" -- breaking
the law in order to better enforce it. They say they use excessive force, or
pressure a suspect to confess, or fail to use proper search warrants,
because they must do whatever it takes to defend society's interests. When
caught, police are generally acquitted by juries that stand in awe of their
work and are swayed by the excellence of their legal counsels (police unions
can afford the best).

But the Toronto case also involves what might be called "shameful deviance"
- -- the 22 criminal charges include theft. Now, Canadians are made uneasy
even by "noble deviance." Numerous commissions of inquiry into police abuse
of power (even for a justifiable purpose) testify to this obsession --
recall the 1978 Keable inquiry into illegal police activity in Quebec (I was
its director of research), or the exhaustive inquiry into police use of
pepper spray on protesters at the 1997 Asia Pacific Economic Summit. But
outright police corruption is a Canadian taboo. We assume that it is a
problem plaguing police elsewhere -- but not here.

And yet Canada has had its share of notorious cases. The head of the
Montreal police narcotics squad was filmed in the early 1980s stealing drugs
from the police vault. He was prosecuted and handed a stiff prison sentence.
At least one RCMP narcotics officer was also caught accepting large sums of
money from his informant. These cases were few and could be dismissed by
invoking the "rotten apple" theory. The occasional bad fruit was discovered,
but the barrel was immune.

Here's an interesting difference between Canadian and American culture:
While our U.S. neighbours have not been as obsessed as Canadians with police
violations of citizens' rights, they clamp down hard on police corruption.
New York City has held an inquiry into police corruption every 20 years or
so. The last one, the 1994 Mollen Commission, was launched after several
officers from numerous precincts were arrested for bribery and drug

One of the commission's findings was that the distinction between "noble"
deviance and "shameful" deviance was artificial: Crooked cops are the most

But even more significant was its declaration that corruption is rarely just
a few "rotten apples"; it flourishes in certain sectors.

The Mollen Commission asserted that "most serious police corruption today
arises from the drug trade." It stated that in "every high-crime precinct"
with an active narcotics trade that it examined, it found "some level of
corruption to exist."

Other sectors of police work are also susceptible. Corruption among Montreal
police dealing with prostitution and gambling during the late 1940s led to
the Caron inquiry of the early 1950s. The Caron probe, and New York City's
Knapp Commission into police drug squads during the early 1970s (made famous
in the movie Serpico), found evidence of corruption through whole police
departments. The Mollen report states that "virtually all the corruption we
uncovered . . . involved groups of officers -- called "crews" -- that
protect and assist each others' criminal activities."

Some have suggested that the way to deal with such corruption-prone jobs is
to break up these crews, by rotating officers through units that deal with
police gambling, prostitution or drugs. I'd suggest, rather, that when
police see themselves as fighting a never-ending war against behaviour in
which many members of the public indulge, they are particularly demoralized.
We should drop such losing battles, and deal with call girls or small-time
drug users with more realistic laws.

Another lesson for Canada involves police unions. The Mollen report
chastises them for advising members not to co-operate with investigators
unless granted total immunity from prosecution. Toronto's police union is
notorious for intimidating its critics; will it encourage its members to be
forthcoming with investigators into the current corruption case? The union
should be urged to do so, and take a public stand against corruption,
without presuming that the present police suspects are guilty. The Mollen
Commission also suggested that individual officers who want to help
corruption investigations be given access to a pool of independent lawyers,
rather than having to use police-union lawyers, who see their main job as
protecting the ranks.

Are police able to police their own kind? Not according to the Mollen
report, which made an overwhelming case for the need for "independent,
external oversight." Commendably, the Toronto police did turn to an external
police force (the RCMP) to conduct the current inquiry. That it needed to do
so is proof of the shortcomings of internal investigations.

But the most far-reaching finding of the Mollen Commission was that criminal
investigations into police corruption were wanting because they broke down
systemic deviance into fragmented individual prosecutions. Whatever their
outcome, such judicial proceedings do not change the internal culture. They
may get rid of the most conspicuous predators, but they protect the
predatory system. A dedicated and thorough task force should be able to
tackle this job instead of a public commission of inquiry, and in that way
avoid creating the circus generated by public investigations.

I served on a complaints committee for the Quebec Provincial Police after
the Oka crisis, to conduct a disciplinary investigation into allegations of
police brutality. Eventually, we realized we were going nowhere by simply
suspending one individual for two days, another for one day. Such
investigations tend to focus on individuals; scapegoating was no answer. We
realized that for things to change, we would have to look at procedures and
systems, at how officers are trained, rotated, and promoted.

One thing should be clear: If corruption is found to reach deeply into the
Metro Toronto police department, no matter how many officers are prosecuted,
nothing will be solved until department-wide reforms are implemented.
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