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Editorial: Paying a price for speaking out

Victoria police Const. David Bratzer thinks drugs should be legalized, and he’s happy to talk about his position. VicPD is not as happy.

Victoria police Const. David Bratzer thinks drugs should be legalized, and he’s happy to talk about his position. VicPD is not as happy. Bratzer’s run-ins with the department have dropped him into the middle of the debate over how much freedom police officers have or should have to express their opinions. It’s a thorny problem.

The constable is president of the Canadian branch of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, which lobbies for legalization and regulation of drugs. Its members are current and former law-enforcement officials.

Bratzer has filed a human-rights complaint against the department and Chief Jamie Graham because he says they have discriminated against him because of his political beliefs.

He says he has been careful in any public speeches to make it clear he is speaking for himself and not the department. However, he was ordered not to participate in a panel discussion on harm reduction in February 2010, told not to comment publicly on Washington state’s successful referendum on marijuana legalization and reminded several times that Graham disapproved of his actions. He has also been warned not to criticize other police officers.

Everyone who has been in the working world for more than a few weeks knows you don’t bad-mouth your employer in public, whether it’s a private business or a government department. But Bratzer is not denigrating the police department. He’s expressing an opinion about public policy, something every Canadian has a right to do.

The sticky part is that he is not an ordinary Canadian.

It’s obvious that if Bratzer is invited to speak about legalizing drugs, it’s because he is a police officer, not because he is a citizen who has an opinion on the issue. When an officer whose job is to enforce the laws says one of the laws should be abolished, his argument carries a disproportionate weight, if only for its novelty value.

Is a police officer entitled to an opinion? He deals with the sharp end of the justice system every day. We can’t expect him to have no thoughts about the value or the enforceability of the laws. Given his experience, he has a perspective that few other people can provide.

And he is not advising people to break the law. He is urging our politicians to change the law.

He is not alone in asking for reform. In August, Canada’s police chiefs voted in favour of issuing tickets instead of laying criminal charges in cases of simple possession. Police are already selective in their enforcement of certain laws. In Vancouver last year, officers laid only six possession charges.

Still, Bratzer’s public position could subtly undermine attitudes. If people know that the police believe a particular law should be abolished, are they more likely to flout that law? How are his colleagues likely to react if they are faithfully making drug busts and hunting dealers while he is campaigning to have the drug laws thrown out?

They would be less than human if they didn’t resent it.

On the other hand, what would the reaction be if a police officer called for tougher laws, rather than legalization? Police officers often do that, without any consequences. Graham has urged that people who use cellphones while driving should lose their phones. It created a stir and some debate, but nothing more.

They are similarly political issues, but they don’t present the same pitfalls because they don’t question the existence of the law, only its severity.

Bratzer is taking a principled stand. He should not face discrimination for it, but the police department has legitimate concerns over sending conflicting messages about law enforcement.