22 October 2014

Get the police out of politics and politics out of the police #nlpoli

tacticalteamThey just don’t look like recruiting ads.

That’s the most striking thing about a series of television ads airing in Newfoundland and Labrador.

There’s no sense of an invitation to come and join the group.  At least, there’s nothing of that in the images themselves.

riotConsider the number of shots that have the police facing the camera.  The effect puts the viewer in an adversarial position, especially when faced with the tactical team or the riot team in these shots, above and right.

The only place you see the invitation is in the last image, a graphic that looks like this:RNCA

Now you get why these ads aren’t really about recruiting.

See it?

Right there at the bottom is a little statement that tells you these ads are “brought to you by the RNCA”.

That’s the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary Association.

It’s not the police force.

The ads are from the union representing police officers.

That little tidbit of information surfaced Tuesday in a Telegram story that was seemingly pushed out by the police association to counteract the intense criticism the ads have generated on social media. “New video showcases lesser known duties: RNC” the title on the story reads, even though the story makes it plain that the ads didn’t come from the force itself, at all.

The Telegram story puts the recruiting aspect as an unmistakeably secondary aspect of the whole thing.  While there’s no attribution to the comment, the Telly story very clearly states that recruitment “is another reason for the video, since the RNC has an active recruitment drive.”  Not the reason, but another reason.  The main one, as the headline on the story says, is to showcase supposedly lesser known aspects of the Constabulary’s capabilities.

Which is all wonderful, except the ads don’t really give any useful information on those supposedly lesser known capabilities of the local police.  There are lots of those aggressive, confrontational shots.  Lots of darkness and agitation and plenty of shots of cops and only cops.

Running through the heart of the university campus.

Running up a stream with a pair of dogs. 

Speeding around outside the narrows and in the harbour.

On the radio.

In an office looking up something on a computer.

Getting ready to kick in a door.

Sitting in a  car, talking on the radio.

Looming out of the smoke with helmets, batons and riot shields.

Galloping along Water Street.

But no civilians.

No members of the public the police are supposed to be there to serve and protect.

A showcase of lesser known capabilities?

Pull the other one, guys.  It’s got a screaming siren on it.

A better way to show the public what the police force is all about would have been to allow reporters like Tara Bradbury do profiles of the officers involved in the activities and have a look at the work involved.

But while that sort of thing is what you would expect the police force to be doing as part of its public obligation for accountability,  the force hasn’t done that.  Instead, they’ve allowed the union to do its own campaign aimed at its own purposes with a recruiting campaign scabbed on for show.

This new twist on the story raises serious questions about the entire project. We’ve got to wonder why the police leadership decided to give the union authority to run its own campaign using the force’s identity.  If it was a matter of money, then that’s something the government needs to address. If it’s a matter that the police leadership saw no need to run a proper public information program using public money, then we have to question the thinking behind that decision both at Fort Townshend and in the public safety ministry.

Ultimately, the union and the force don’t share the same interest and that’s actually clear in the ads. The union exists to advance its members’ interest, particularly in contract negotiations for pay and benefits. The police force is a public institution responsible for the impartial enforcement of the law.

Knocking down the distinction between the police force itself and the police officers’ union carries with it some serious implications in that question of interests. We need to keep a sharp distinction between the police force and the actions of its individual members outside the workplace.  That includes what their union does.

The union has developed a regrettable tendency over the past decade to ally itself with political parties through political donations. They’ve been heavily backing the Conservatives for the past decade, pretty much to the exclusion of anyone else.  If the union shifts its cash support to the Liberals now that they are on the rise, then things don’t get better.  The union will merely be carrying on what is – in itself – a very bad practice. 

In Ontario, they’ve got a more advanced stage of the politicised police  disorder. In the largest province in the country, there are three police unions and all are involved to one degree or another in political activity. One union ran ads in the last provincial election campaign attacking one of the political parties.   Politics and badges don’t mix well

The Royal Newfoundland Constabulary needs to pull this campaign and scrap the recruiting website.  Start over, this time without getting the police union to pay for it.

As for the political contributions by the police union, well, best to fix that problem by changes to the laws governing political donations.  We’d be better off in the long run banning donations by companies and unions and putting caps on individual donations. The Conservatives promised it but never delivered.  There really is no greater fraud, Danny Williams. The Conservatives could set the tone by refunding the RNCA donations. If the Liberals or New Democrats have any cheques from the RNCA, they should politely return the cash.  Whatever party forms the next government, campaign finance reform should be at the top of its agenda.

We don’t need to politicise the police force or leave the possible impression that the line between policing and partisanship is blurry, let alone resurrect the climate in which people  - including at least one police officer – could claim that there was open political interference in policing and prosecutions.  We’ve been through that already and it was an awful mess. 

Just ask Bill Rowe.