The topic of policing rarely allows for a dull month and, for better or worse, this month conforms to that norm. Specifically, Richard Shank, a longtime member of the Toronto Police Service who is best known for having committed two on-duty killings of Black men in the 1990s (Ian Coley in 1993 and Hugh Dawson in 1997), has recently become the subject of belated consternation based on his October 2021 appointment as Unit Commander of Professional Standards.
Critics of the appointment contend that the move creates bad optics, indicates the persistence of a non-progressive organizational culture and, by extension, runs contrary to several years of Toronto police rhetoric about the need to foster improved relationships with marginalized communities.
And, oh yes, one more thing: as is commonly the case when policing controversies arise – such as the April 2020 Nova Scotia mass shooting or the February 2022 “Freedom Convoy” occupation of Ottawa – the Shank appointment has generated claims that police have once again undermined public trust in their institution.
At this point, however, some sorely neglected and perhaps heretical questions ought to be posed: Is public distrust of the police necessarily negative? Aren’t there a broad range of circumstances in which not trusting the police would be beneficial to particular individuals and even the general public? Shouldn’t healthy skepticism of powerful institutions, a key facet of a robust democratic ethos, be directed at police organizations?
At the individual level, it isn’t difficult to unearth examples of how trusting the police can go terribly wrong. In June 2019, for instance, a mother, concerned about being unable to locate her 16-year-old son who was possibly in a state of distress, contacted the Durham Regional Police to find him and conduct a “wellness check.”
What was the result? Two officers eventually found him hanging out with friends in a local park, at which time they asked him questions, demanded to search him then shoved him to the ground and punched him numerous times, resulting in multiple injuries to the boy. Given that a video of the incident was widely circulated, Durham police formulated a justificatory narrative which essentially blamed the boy for being uncooperative. Reflecting on the police aggression against her son, the mother stated, “I entrusted the police to find him and take care of him.”
And on the other side of the GTA, trust in the Peel Regional Police produced nothing positive in the case of Abdullah Darwich, a nonverbal autistic 19-year-old who was beaten bloody by Peel officers in November 2022 despite being registered in a Vulnerable Persons Registry.
More broadly, police officials regularly make significant claims that are anything but trustworthy. During the recent deliberations about the $48 million increase to the Toronto police budget, police chief Marlon Demkiw claimed the additional funds would help lower response times to high priority emergency calls.
He conveniently neglected to mention that, as revealed in a June 2022 report by the Toronto Auditor General, the Toronto police are striving for a policing model in which 30 per cent of officer time would be “uncommitted,” meaning almost one-third of patrol time would be spent not responding to calls. Instead, that time would be used to engage in proactive policing also known as the basis upon which Toronto officers had plenty of uncommitted time to fill out absurd numbers of contact cards for several years.
There’s an obvious tension between asserting a desire to lower call response times while simultaneously strategizing to increase the amount of time officers spend doing anything except responding to calls, but the Toronto City Councilors who voted for the police budget increase presumably trusted Demkiw such that the glaring deficiencies of his arguments either eluded them or were summarily disregarded.
Yet, having said all of this, the strongest case for the value of distrusting the police is rooted in the sphere of foundational democratic traditions. Consider this statement by political scientist Michael Parenti: “Democracy is not about trust; it is about distrust. It is about accountability, exposure, open debate, direct challenge. It is about responsible government, all of which is fortified by a healthy dose of distrust.” The same proposition logically applies to all institutional components of the democratic state, including the police.
For these reasons, policing controversies, such as the Shank appointment, aren’t entirely lamentable insofar as bad optics can give birth to good distrust.
(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by PostX News and is published from a syndicated feed.)