Police and the Media Part 2

Police and the Media
Police and the Media

This blog is about policing, and not the media; but given the complex nature of the relationship between these institutions, it is worth taking some time to think about the media and journalism in general, and so in this second post I want to talk some more about the role of the media.

I mentioned my friend Michael Camp in part 1 of this post, and when he and I talked about this issue back in October 2016, Michael was pretty clear that there is an important role for the media in holding powerful institutions to account for their actions. So regardless of the institution that is being scrutinized by the media, that institution's practices should be held up against what is considered to be the best practices in the profession.

For example, government practices in tendering for projects are often an area of public concern because of the potential for abuse when multi-million dollar contracts are at stake. The current investigation within the Canadian Armed Forces regarding the alleged leaks of classified information is reported to be linked to the government's multibillion-dollar shipbuilding strategy.[1] This is pretty important information for the public to know about.

In policing, the most recent and high profile examples of media scrutiny are related to policing practices regarding the investigation of sexual assault complaints, as well racial profiling. The work of journalists in both of these cases has contributed to several police agencies triggering reviews of their own practices.

The media has been critical of the police regarding their practices in dealing with racial minorities, and their criticism has been based on evidence. The vast over-representation of racial minorities in street-check data is just one example of where the police have shown an absence of effort in addressing the issue of racial profiling. Racial profiling is real. Early in my career I was told by an officer that a "car load of Indians" is a good check on any weekend night because "you'll always come up with something."  But I knew better.  I knew that a carload of people, from any neighbourhood, was a good check, as long as there was legal authority to do so, and it had nothing to do with their race.    

Racial profiling, sexual harassment, and sexual assault investigations are just a few issues where the media recently has fulfilled its mandate to hold institutions accountable for their practices. In all of these cases, the police agencies under scrutiny have turned their efforts toward fixing the problems once the media exposed the embarrassing truth.

"Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases."

- U.S. Supreme Court, Louis Dembitz Brandeis (1856-1941)

While I was Chief of Police, I had the responsibility to address the public on several occasions about errors made by the police department and its members. Several of those errors would have been corrected without the public ever having known but for my insistence that they be notified through the media. Although there can be a bit of embarrassment in such cases, it is well known that the public in general has plenty of respect for people and institutions that own their own fallibility. It builds trust, and trust is absolutely critical to any police agency, and every police officer.

[1] Murray Brewster, "DND leak investigation started under Tories, expanded under Liberals", CBC News, www.cbc.ca, 15 March 2017.