Balancing Free Speech and Impartiality - Barry MacKnight

Balancing Free Speech and Impartiality - Barry MacKnight - Blog Header
Balancing Free Speech and Impartiality - Barry MacKnight - Blog Header

Issues in Policing

10- Balancing Free Speech and Impartiality

As I write this post, the Ottawa Police Service is in the throes of grappling with a troubling case related to a police officer's right to express their personal views.  Born of the tragic circumstances surrounding the death of an unarmed black man in July of 2016 in Ottawa during a confrontation with police, the controversy is centered on officers opting to wear a bracelet signifying their support for the officer who has been charged with manslaughter in relation to the death. The bracelets are inscribed with the phrase "United We Stand" on the outside, and "Divided We Fall" on the inside. The key to the discussion is that the officers are wearing the bracelets while on duty and in uniform.

Now, I mentioned that the deceased was unarmed, and I mentioned that the deceased was black; I did so not because an individual death is more tragic based on race, but rather because context is everything. In policing at this time in history we are struggling to earn the respect and trust of communities of people who have been marginalized by poverty and racism.  That is the context- and race matters.

The wearing of the ubiquitous rubber bracelet, which I suspect we have all done, is a way to show what we think about certain issues.  While we have lots of opinions, most of which are not described by our appearance or garb, sometimes we opt to show our opinions.  Whether it is a button or bracelet, a t-shirt or hat, we can find lots of ways to make it clear where we stand on an issue.

That's the nub of the issue- what should know about a police officer's personal views?

In this case, it is clear to anyone that the bracelet sends the message that the person wearing the bracelet is supportive of the officer who was charged in the death.

The family of the man who died is outraged by the apparent insensitivity of these police officers to their family's loss; the officers say that they are simply supporting a colleague; other officers have condemned the wearing of the bracelets as tone-deaf to the public sentiment;  and the Chief of Police now has prohibited the wearing of the bracelets by officers while on duty.

  • Do these officers not have a right to quietly express their opinions about an issue as critical as a colleague's criminal prosecution for on-duty conduct?
  • Might the officers not reasonably fear that it could have been any one of them responding to that call for service and that it could have been them making the critical decisions about the use of force, and they themselves would want support from their colleagues?
  • Given that the officer charged in the case has been suspended and isolated from the workplace awaiting the court process, should their colleagues not be able to show that they stand with them?
  • These are some of the questions that reasonable people ask when encountered with such an intense crisis in the workplace, and these circumstance strike fear in the hearts of police officers and their families.

But I'll suggest that there are other questions that also must be considered by any police officer as they think about how they will answer these questions.

  • What are my professional obligations under the Police Act?
  • What is the policy and practice of my employer?
  • What harm can come from my actions?
  • What is the underlying intention of the action?

Let's look at the law first.

The following are excerpts from the New Brunswick Police Act, Code of Professional Conduct (emphasis added by this writer):

34.  It is incumbent on every member of a police force:

            (b) to maintain the integrity of the law, law enforcement and the administration of justice

            (c) to perform his or her duties promptly, impartially and diligently, in accordance with the law,                       and without abusing his or her authority.

            (d) to avoid any actual, apparent or potential conflict of interests

            (g) to act at all times in a manner that will not bring discredit on his or her role as a member of   the police force

It should be abundantly clear from a good-faith reading of this section of the Act that its intention is to communicate that officers must always be very aware that what they say and do has a tremendous impact on the public's perception of them, i.e. whether the police can or should be trusted to apply the law impartially.  My experience is that police officers often forget that by virtue of the very special type of office that they hold in society, even the most innocuous of actions on their part can have far-reaching impacts, and may very well cause people to question their impartiality.

Any officer would understand intuitively that if they were assigned to police a political protest on an issue such as, oh..., let's say the government's approval of a pipeline project, for example, they would certainly not wear a pro or anti-pipeline button on their uniform.  They could reasonably discuss their personal views on the issue with their own family and friends and colleagues, but they must not do anything that would cause the protesters to believe that the officer might apply the law based on anything other than complete professionalism and impartiality.  

But this example is pretty simple.  Add in some of the ordinary complexities of life- say perhaps that the officer's spouse will lose their job depending on which way the pipeline decision goes. Does that make it harder?  Of course, it does.  But it must not impact the officer's conduct, they must remain impartial.

So let's ramp it up further. In the Ottawa case, the bracelet-wearing officers are no doubt thinking about the next violent encounter where their lives might be at risk.  Now a colleague stands charged with taking a life, perhaps they know the officer well, have relied on them for help in critical circumstances, have shared traumatic incidents with them. They are moved to, compelled to, reach out and support them.  Of course, they should do just that- reach out, support, do what good friends and colleagues must do. However, what they must not do is speak publicly or display publicly any sign whatsoever that might reasonably be interpreted as an indication that their impartiality has been compromised.   

Is this easy?  Nope.  Not easy at all.  But it must be so. Impartiality is the keystone of professional policing.

Without it, the community will not be able to trust the police.