Growing up in the little town of Port Coquitlam, my youth wasn’t characterized by a whole lot of excitement. If I had to describe that time in my life, boring would be the best adjective to use. But in the Spring of 2013, my senior year of high school, during morning period’s Law 12 class, we had an exciting guest speaker who roused me from my suburban boredom. It was my teacher’s husband, a long-time member of the RCMP’s Emergency Response Team (ERT), a SWAT-style paramilitary branch trained to handle intense situations. Walking into class in a black special-ops uniform, everyone in our class was enthralled and peppered him with questions. “What’s it like being in a police chase?” “How many shootouts have you been in?” “Have you killed a guy before?” Looking back on it, many of our questions were juvenile and ignorant, but we were kids. We were raised on a diet of first-person shooters and Hollywood action movies, that celebrated guys with big guns solving the big problems of the world. In our young and naïve minds, people like my teacher’s husband were not only heroes, but total badasses worthy of worship for their martial prowess. He took our questioning in good stride and showed us most of his equipment, and most importantly of all his C8 Carbine assault rifle. I remember being mesmerized by this piece of lethal machinery. It was something out of one of my Call of Duty or Battlefield games, just touching it oozed coolness. As he left the room to a round of applause, the thought never crossed my mind about why such a gun was needed to maintain public order.
Canadian police departments are like kids in a candy store when it comes to getting leftovers from Canada’s military operations abroad.
Fast forward to 2014 and my perspectives on policing are changing with events in Ferguson, Missouri. I remember watching heavily armed cops looking like marines patrolling the streets of Fallujah firing rubber bullets and tear gas canisters at protestors on live TV. Armored vehicles blockaded streets and local law enforcement resembled an occupying force rather than a police department designed to “protect and serve” its citizens. It was incredulous to my young mind, that in a democratic society, armed police actions clearly in violation of civil liberties could happen at such a vast scale. America was “The Land of the Free”, yet its police officers were acting like armed thugs in an authoritarian state such as Russia or Egypt. Ferguson awoke me to issues of not only racial injustice, but police militarization which was a growing concern not only in America, but in Canada as well.
Militarization has largely crept into Canadian society with very little public blowback—aside from a few high priority cases such as the 2010 G20 summit riots in Toronto and the militarized police presence during the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympic Games. Overall, police spending on military-style hardware has largely gone uncontested, and this decade has seen a flourishing in purchases of weaponry and vehicles by Canadian police departments. In 2015, Winnipeg police purchased a Gurka MPV armored personnel carrier (APC) for over $300,000. The Toronto Police Service since 2016 has equipped its front-line officers with C8 assault rifles which cost $2000 each, and in anticipation of the violence at the G20 summit in 2010, Toronto police bought four long-range acoustic devices (LRAD) or sound cannons which are commonly used to deal with Somali pirates. Sometimes purchases don’t even have to be made, thanks to the goodwill of the Canadian Forces. Police departments in both Windsor, Ontario and New Glasgow, Nova Scotia had Cougar armoured vehicles donated to them free of charge through Canadian military surplus plans in 2013. Canadian police departments are like kids in a candy store when it comes to getting leftovers from Canada’s military operations abroad.
The VPD MLU has no public accountability and information on the unit is scarce
Police departments justify these acquisitions with incredibly vague statements about increased officer safety on the job. Mark Saunders, Chief of the Toronto Police Service, addressed the C8 purchases in 2016 stating: “I need a long rifle use of force out there for officer safety.” The shooting of five Mounties by a lone gunman in Moncton, New Brunswick back in 2014 also has been used as evidence of the necessity for better equipment. The RCMP internal review done in the aftermath of the shootings suggested officers needed to receive more training in using body armor and patrol rifles such as the C8. However, statistics show that Canada has experienced an increasingly steady decrease in crime rates, with the 2013 crime rate being the lowest since 1969.
While there are certain situations—such as the 2014 Moncton shootings—that require high-powered armaments to guarantee public safety, the overall statistics on crime in Canada do not support arguments for increased militarization. University of Winnipeg professor Kevin Walby argues that, if anything, police militarization is more likely to result in overreach. Walby speaking on American policing states: “One lesson to learn from the US is that the more SWAT forces have been used for routine policing activities, the more innocent people die at the hands of police.”
These concerns around police militarization are starting to be voiced within police departments as well. Canada’s “top cop”, RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson stated that while he wanted his officers to have the best equipment possible, he was “afraid of the trend in policing for escalating military-style tools being used by law enforcement to conduct police operations.” Instead of creating an “us vs. them” mentality between police and communities, Paulson is stressing the necessity of a “problem-solving, community-oriented, prevention approach that is better suited to the Canadian context.”
“the basic mission for which police exist is to prevent crime and disorder as an alternative to the repression of crime and disorder by military force and severity of legal punishment”
While voices such as Commissioner Paulson’s are reassuring, concrete action is needed to halt the looming spectre of police militarization. Since 2010, the Vancouver Police Department has continued to maintain its Military Liaison Unit (MLU). Originally designed to coordinate with Canadian Forces during the 2010 Winter Olympic Games, the MLU has become one of the VPD’s biggest secrets. The unit remains operational despite the Olympics having long since passed and is known to travel four to six times a year to Washington State to cross-train with the US Army National Guard. The VPD MLU has no public accountability and information on the unit is scarce, making its purpose that much more mysterious and worrisome to those concerned with its potential to lead to civil liberties violations.
Police militarization directly contradicts the established policing principles of this nation. British Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel in 1829 laid down the directive for modern policing in Canada with his nine Principles of Law Enforcement. Key among these principles was the notion that: “the basic mission for which police exist is to prevent crime and disorder as an alternative to the repression of crime and disorder by military force and severity of legal punishment”. Peel also stated, in regards to use of force, that “the degree of cooperation of the public that can be secured diminishes, proportionately, to the necessity for the use of physical force and compulsion in achieving police objectives.” The fact that a 19th Century politician had a better understanding of the purpose of policing than most police officials in the 21st Century is both baffling and frustrating.
Cops aren’t the enemy, but they need to know that the communities they police aren’t either.
I find myself mystified as to the goals of Canadian police in the 21st Century. Crime is at an all-time low and if anything, prevention strategies make more sense than using excessive force as a means of repression. Yet increasingly, cops seem to be adopting an “us vs. them” mentality as we see them become more heavily armed. Police officers have a tough job and I can’t stress enough my respect for the work they do to keep ordinary citizens safe. But at the same time, use of force should be proportionate to what is exhibited. While I’m sure my Law 12 teacher’s husband is a consummate professional on the job, the fact that he needs to be so heavily armed to do it concerns me. Policing should be about community engagement to prevent crime, not engaging in military-style operations with the hope of suppressing it through lethal force. The types of people I once thought of as heroes seem more like oppressive figures of a cold and distant state. It shouldn’t be that way and it can’t continue to be that way. Cops aren’t the enemy, but they need to know that the communities they police aren’t either.