Scrutiny: are you looking at me?

Scrutiny: are you looking at me? Blog header
Scrutiny: are you looking at me? Blog header

We learn at a young age that there are social norms about staring at people in public. The rule simply being that it is not done, lest we be labelled rude, or even worse. But sometimes we see people, and we feel an overwhelming need to look at them, to watch them. Often a series of quick glances will satisfy our desire to see more- who they are, what they're doing, etc. We look at those we find attractive, interesting, or odd perhaps.

But put on a uniform and people will stare unapologetically. We see all kinds of people wearing uniforms every day, be they public servants such as firefighters and nurses, or labourers, construction workers, servers in the coffee shops and restaurant. We do give them a second look. After all, they are wearing a uniform; it's like they want us to look at them. 

The civil servants (any of those folks to whom we feel a taxation connection) get some extra attention and a little guilt-free judging. We pay their salaries after all, don't we? And it seems very obvious to me that we, the public, reserve a special level of personal scrutiny and judging for the police officers we see, be it in person or on video. 

Sometimes the scrutiny is about the person in the uniform, and sometimes it's about the institution represented by the person and the uniform together. People will comment about an officer's height, weight, gender, and ethnicity; about whether they are smiling or grumpy. Of course people judge what they are doing: writing a ticket, drinking coffee, arresting a person, winning a foot chase, losing a foot chase, or a violent encounter. And most of the time, those meting out the judgements are not aware of whether it is the person or the institution who actually needs the judging, and really, how could they at a glance? But they judge nonetheless. For the person subject to such scrutiny, the personal and public kind, it can sting quite fiercely.

But scrutiny is also very important. I believe that most people who work in policing think that the role of the police in society is an important one. But I think that relatively few people who work in policing actually understand that the role of the police in society is so critical that, as an institution, it requires constant and rigorous scrutiny.  

I have said thousands of times in my police career that in a liberal democracy the agents of the state, and the police in particular, must be subject to vigorous scrutiny. This is critically important in order to ensure that the police maintain a balanced, fair, and legal approach when dealing with citizens. When that balance is off, very bad things happen. Communities sense a distance and disconnection with the police, and there is a rise in the number violent encounters. People also stop talking to the police as freely as they ordinarily would, which is a serious impediment to the police's ability to solve crime. I will have lots more to say about this in future posts, but for this post I will focus solely on scrutiny.

Aside from the scrutiny mentioned above, much of which does not generate formal complaints, there are other levels and types of scrutiny that are in place when it comes to policing:

  1. The media serves a key role is shining a light on police practices, and what they are hearing in the community. 
  2. Police agencies have internal audit and review functions to ensure that policies and procedures are adhered to at the service-delivery level. 
  3. There is a provincial regulatory regime in most, if not all, provinces that oversees some type of policing standards against which police agencies are audited on a regular basis.  
  4. The courts serve an important role in scrutinizing police practices when charges are processed through the system. 
  5. Of course there is the formal public and internal complaints process which also generates scrutiny both at the individual conduct and policy levels. 
  6. There are formal inquiries and inquests that, while not common place, but when held, are invaluable in examining police conduct, culture,   and policies.

That's a lot of scrutiny. 

My experience has been that, when police officers are lucky, they may get the chance to acclimatize to the scrutiny slowly. For officers who have never had the experience of wearing a uniform in public, becoming accustomed to the constant staring and comments can be a challenge. While police academy training is sometimes isolated from the public, there are programs integrated into colleges with many other programs. The time that the police cadets are around others who are not in uniform helps to develop a level of comfort with that scrutiny. Once the officer is working as a cadet or with a coach officer after hiring, they must then deal with the additional pressures and scrutiny of being an authority figure to whom people look for guidance and solutions.    

Were we to poll a sample of police officers, I suspect that we would learn that the scrutiny they find most difficult is from the media. I believe there is a wide perception within policing that the media is often overly critical of the police, without ensuring that due process is afforded those officers who may be the focus of misconduct complaints.  

For the officers that are critical of media scrutiny of policing, what appears to be lacking, perhaps among many other things, is a fundamental understanding on the part of police officers of the role of the media in general, and specifically the role of the media in scrutinizing the police.  Reaching this understanding would go a long way to help assuage the sense that officers have, from time to time, that they are under attack. 

In an upcoming post I will explore the role of the media in covering policing issues, as we try to reach an understanding about how the media's role can help the police fulfill their role.