Steve Woolrich: Police must function within the criminal justice system

As this series highlighting Peel’s Nine Principles of Policing winds down, we’re being reminded daily that policing reforms are well underway in many cities throughout North America.

Sir Robert Peel is still considered the father of modern policing, and was a pioneer. Peel served in various government roles and demonstrated a genuine interest in social behaviour which likely led to some of the foundational principles we’ve been exploring over the past seven weeks.

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Peel’s eighth principle states: “Police should always direct their action strictly towards their functions and never appear to usurp the powers of the judiciary.”

Police often find themselves right in the middle of hot topics where citizens demand action.

Many of our present issues are complex, and involve: Police shootings, use of force, homelessness, racial profiling, addictions and mental health. Strong leadership helps create the necessary changes that will improve our policing models and address some of these serious problems – however, let’s remember there is a big difference between influencing change and forcing change.

The task of adhering to the mandated functions of policing is critical despite the ongoing pressure by the public to act quickly and resolve many of these crises. Various groups and organized movements demanding reforms is nothing new, and our judicial system must examine these before creating new laws and legislation that could create more harm.

Former Colorado police chief Joel Shults recently wrote “the difference is that today’s movements develop literally at the speed of light with digital narratives overwhelming deliberate investigation and analysis. No opinion goes unpublished or unchallenged. There will be promises of new laws, regulations, funding, oversight and attention to policing. But mostly voices will soften as politicians promise and the news cycle attaches to a new crisis.”

It’s disturbing to think that some of our most recent events will simply be overwritten!

Rethinking policing is something we should all be considering, and it seems logical that any agile police service will be doing the same.

William O’Grady explores many of the issues we face in his book, Crime in Canadian Context – Debates and Controversies.

He points out that “in simple terms, a law-and-order platform towards crime supports a strict criminal justice system. This ‘tough on crime’ logic extends to all three major elements of the criminal justice system – the police, the courts, and prisons.”

It’s imperative then, that when considering Peel, the police must focus on their functions, and not manipulate the system they are sworn to uphold.

This “tough on crime” approach has been disputed for many years, particularly through sociological research. Our Criminal Justice System is being scrutinized, with many Canadians agreeing that it requires major reforms.

Transforming this system is time consuming but it’s well underway. Since 2016, the federal justice mnister or the Parliamentary Secretary, or both, held roundtable discussions with people working in the system and interested parties across Canada.

Their report summarizes these roundtable discussions, and highlights best practices, challenges and suggested improvements. It’s interesting to note that almost all the participants stressed the same major concern.

They said “that most people who come in contact with the criminal justice system are vulnerable or marginalized individuals. They are struggling with mental health and addiction issues, poverty and homelessness, and prior victimization. Most felt that the criminal justice system is not equipped to address the issues that cause criminal behaviour in these groups, nor should it be. Participants felt these issues are worsened by an over-reliance on incarceration.”

The question isn’t whether we need reforms – we do. Better questions are how, with whom and how long will they take?

It’s clear that police leaders, and their officers are caught between a rock and hard place in many cases. In my recollection it’s never been a more difficult time to police, and during two concurrent public health crises.

Unfortunately, there is no panacea for what we now face. We need laws to support our new vision of what policing looks like (or should be) in Canada. Until then, let’s act with integrity and compassion.

Steve Woolrich is a Crime Prevention Practitioner and the principal of Rethink Urban’s collaborative focusing on Community Safety and Well-Being.

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