14 April 2015

Politics, the police, and tragedy #nlpoli

Last October,  Premier Paul Davis appointed Lynn Moore to his new advisory council on crime.  Moore is in private practice these days but, as the little profile Davis’ office appended to their announcement of her appointment shows,  Moore spent five years as the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary’s in-house lawyer.

She’s also been known to write the odd letter or two to the editor of the local papers.

Last October, for example, Moore felt compelled to write to the editor of theindependent.ca to explain why she thought that the province wouldn’t turn into a police state now that a former police constable was the Premier.  Such thinking was the result of bias and elitism,  according to Moore.

Last weekend, Moore sent another letter to the gang at the Indy.  This time,  she tried to tie the death of Don Dunphy to what Moore called “boneheaded” decisions like the Liberal one 20 years ago that put one cop in a car instead of two.

So two-person patrols are no longer required by the RNC, and the RCMP are lucky if they can get a two-person detachment, let alone two-person patrols. Usually, in RNC areas, there are two police officers to a car at night. The theory is that things go wrong more often at night. And night time is usually more dangerous. Except on the odd Easter Sunday.

There are more than a few problems with Moore’s letter.

For starters there’s the fact that what she said is – on the face of it – utter nonsense.  We’ve know since almost a week before Moore’s letter arrived that the officer went alone out to visit Don Dunphy because, in his professional opinion, there was a low threat or risk.  We know that because the police force investigating the shooting told us so.

Second, we know that Constabulary police has never, ever , ever at all, ever put police officers in jeopardy by telling them that only one officer can respond to a call or go to a location, full stop, regardless of information that suggests a threat.  If Moore has proof of something else she ought to tell us.  As a former in-house lawyer for the local constabulary, Moore ought to be intimately acquainted with police policy. 

In other words, and this brings us to the third problem,  Moore knows or ought to know that what she said is not true.  Even if she did not know specifically about this incident, one would expect that an individual with her experience might show sufficient judgment to understand that the patrol policy of the constabulary is entirely an operational decision by the force itself. 

Moore knows or ought to know that the one- versus two-officer patrol is a raging controversy across North America.  Jurisdictions as diverse as St. John’s and San Diego use a combination of one- and two-officer patrols because they know – from analysis and experience – that they can provide police service more efficiently and safely using a mixture.  Had Moore done so,  a simple google search would have turned up a raft of commentaries on the subject.  At least one of them dates back to the 1950s and discusses experience with one officer patrols in the 1940s.

Then there is the fourth thing. It is hard to know which element of this is more troubling, but one cannot ignore the fact that Moore’s letter is a despicable attempt to turn a tragedy into a partisan political attack of the stupidest kind.  One would hope she did this on her own.  One would hate to think that Moore was acting with the knowledge of people in the Premier’s Office.  For now, let us just assume that this ridiculous pile of garbage that appears in Moore’s name is entirely a turd of her own creation.

Well, not entirely of her own making.  What Moore offered is a view that is common in some parts of the police world. It’s an old, familiar song.  Moore used another aspect of the view when she wrote:

The point is, you can never tell when things will go wrong. Threat assessments are prudent, but they are really only an educated guess. Police officers who respond to calls or who go to speak to people do not and cannot know what threat, if any, they face.

The unknown risk.  No matter how smart or prudent,  the officer never knows what will happen next, therefore…

Therefore, whatever.

This is one of those marvellous excuses masquerading as an argument.  It covers whatever you want.

Twenty years ago, the police agitating for the right to carry firearms on their hips used it as the main reason for their request.  They didn’t have actual incident reports or threat statistics from the local patrol areas.  They just pointed to whatever turned up on the television news from somewhere else.  Followed by the conclusion:  there.  See?

Whenever anyone challenged their assertion, they fell back on the old chestnut that one can never know what will happen next.  Literally, that’s true.  But it could be a justification for anything. 

Some of you will recognise the variation on this old excuse that Moore deployed.  That’s right.  Paul Davis,  Moore’s political patron, used it the day after the shooting when he met with reporters and later on national television.  He pointed to last October’s shooting in Ottawa or the more recent events in Halifax as part of a general theme that we live in a very different world today, but still everyone needs to feel safe.

You might find it curious that Davis’ comments turned up a few days later in a slightly  wording.  You’ll find it in the e-mail allegedly written and distributed by the officer who shot Don Dunphy.

“Our elected officials and their families deserve to live and do their work unencumbered by concerns for their safety and well being.”

It really isn’t all that curious if you think about it for a second.  Some people think the e-mail was produced by a local public relations firm. Likely it wasn’t. There are too many peculiar phrases and capitalizations. One sentence in particular just doesn’t make sense: “Erroneous misleading statistics associated to the depth of work police carry out is difficult to explain in a media sound-bite, but people need to understand that a singular police file number does not capture what we do in its totality.”

This just isn’t the sort of thing a half-ways competent public relations practitioner would write and it certainly isn’t the sort of thing. But it is the sort of thing you would expect from a group of police officers who have known each other a long time, who share common views, and who feel – rightly or wrongly – like they are under siege.  They are certainly under a great deal of pressure, or think they are.

And in that context it wouldn’t be at all surprising if some of them got together, clicked out an e-mail that is full of bravado and self-righteous bullshit and then, just to finish things off, leaked it to CBC and VOCM.  They might have sent it to other newsrooms but it seems that only CBC and VOCM used it.  They may have though they have have a like-minded friend in the Premier’s Office.  After all, Davis called the officer on Sunday night and gave the officer his personal support.

That isn’t to say there’s a conspiracy.  Far from it.  People like Lynn Moore seem to free-lancing stuff. The result is that the whole thing looks more like a case of  SNAFU  turned to FUBAR poised to  hit a new level of BOHICA. The news this past week looks more like a disjointed group of people struggling separately to manage a gigantic mess.  Each has his or her own issues and each has his or her own agenda.  Some of them just happen to share some common language or perceptions.  Some of them, like Chief Bill Janes, have statutory obligations.  Others are just going off half-cocked.

What all of these disjointed attempts at crisis management accomplish, though, is the opposite of what their perpetrators intended.  Far from making their problem go away,  things like the leaked e-mail are an eloquent argument for a review commission to look deeply into the management of the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary.

There’s currently a police investigation into the shooting both under the Criminal Code and under the Fatalities Investigations Act., according to Dunphy family lawyer Erin Breen.  Once those are finished, there should be an inquiry under the Public Inquiries Act that looks at wider issues, including the operations of the Premier’s Office.

But the e-mail/leak and the string of other events last week make the case for a review of Constabulary at the top level.  The 1992 Royal Newfoundland Constabulary Act was supposed to be a step in creating a professional police force that was appropriately managed but, most importantly, far away from the spectre of political interference or political taint.  What has happened in the past 23 years  - and particularly over the past decade – suggests that things haven’t lived up to the intention;  quite the opposite.

Lynn Moore is right:  we do need  to have an inquiry into the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary.  She just wasn’t thinking of one as broad and as deep as we ought to see.  She was also right that there have been some boneheaded decisions made that have adversely affected the very competent and capable men and women of the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary.  They just aren’t the decisions Lynn was thinking of.

And then there are things that aren’t wrong with the RNC at all.  There are the very good things about the force that need to be strengthened and allowed to thrive.  The result of a properly constructed review would be the better provincial police force that we all desire.

To get to that point though,  we have to get the politics out of the force. Lynn Moore has done a fine job of reminding us why.