I think their contribution to the functioning of society is generally underappreciated. Further, much of their work is boring, routine, and lonely, a far cry from the excitement portrayed in TV crime dramas.
But they occupy a unique position in society. No one else is authorized to carry weapons and use force against fellow citizens. This unique authorization demands that they act with restraint and regard for the laws they are charged with enforcing, and that they be subject to civilian oversight.
While I posted some thoughts here immediately after the G20 summit, I restrained my comments, fearing that, in the heat of the moment, I would say something ill-considered.
In my gut, I was disgusted by the way police in full riot gear were shown riding roughshod over the civil rights of hundreds of Torontonians who just happened to be in the wrong place at the right time, who had no malicious intent, who were just going about their business (as they been encouraged to do by the mayor).
I was incensed that 200 people were surrounded by police with riot shields and truncheons, made to stand in a cold downpour for 4 hours, and then released when television coverage of the situation became too embarrassing for the authorities.
Typical arrests included a CTV News cameraman, two National Post photographers, a uniformed TTC ticket-taker on his way to work, a guy walking his dog near his own condo, a teenager who had eyewash in her backpack. TVO's respected public affairs commentator, Steve Paikin, was given a choice between leaving a peaceful (his observation) sit-in or being arrested.
This is the kind of thing that happens in dictatorships, not in a civilized democracy where civil liberties are an expectation. The law-and-order-at-any-cost crowd will say it was an acceptable use of force, but severe damage was done to the relationship between citizens and the guys we used to call Toronto's Finest.
I was also disappointed by the police chief's lame attempts to justify the extreme measures, and the wholesale detention of 800 people in what were later shown to be appalling conditions.
Here's what I would like to have heard from Chief Blair:
"We were given an extremely difficult assignment when our national government decided to host an international summit in the heart of Canada's largest city at a time of year when the streets are filled with citizens and tourists.It's not too late.
This situation was complicated by my own confusion with regard to the scope of special police powers authorized by the provincial government, and by the decision to supplement our own officers with those from police forces from jurisdictions across Canada, most of whom had never even visited Toronto, and therefore had no sense of connection to the city or its people.
While most officers were well-intentioned, some officers overreached their authority, and infringed the civil rights of innocent people. Some of the command decisions also were, in hindsight, ill-advised. We can now see that the hard line taken against all protestors and uninvolved citizens on the second day was an overreaction to the events of the first day, when Black Bloc vandalism threatened to get out of control, and the integrity of the fenced security zone was threatened.
On behalf of the Toronto Police Service, I apologize to the people of Toronto for our breaches of their Charter rights --- the right to freedom of peaceful assembly, the right to freedom of association, the right to security of the person, the right to be secure against unreasonable search or seizure, the right not to be arbitrarily detained or imprisoned, and the right to be informed promptly of the reasons for arrest or detention.
We have learned much from this and I promise that, if similar situations occur in future, we will do better. I hope we may regain your trust."
Update: Two days after my post, Chief Blair acknowledged that some of the police tactics on June 27 were mistakes. I claim no credit.
Update: [June 25, 2011] An Angus Reid public opinion poll revealed that, one year later, 54% of Torontonians felt the police response was unjustified, a dramatic increase from the 23% who felt that way in a poll taken immediately after the summit.
Update: [March 14, 2012] The lawsuits against police pile up.
Update: [May 16, 2012] Police come under heavy criticism in OIPRD's long-awaited report on police activities during Toronto's G20 summit.