The Canadian Association of Police Chiefs wants radical new powers

The Canadian Association of Police Chiefs held their annual confab last week, putting out their typically terrifying wishlist of civil-liberties-violating 1984-esque changes to the Criminal Code that they’d love to see made.

Before we dig into the nitty-gritty of these policy proposals, though, how’s about a little bit of context?

Police-reported crime severity index, 1998-2014. Courtesy StatsCan.

What we see here, clear as a bell, is that over the past two decades, crime of all types has dropped significantly – in some cases, massively. This is particularly true of non-violent crimes. While violent crimes have certainly decreased, the rate of non-violent crime has been in freefall since around 2002.

Incidentally, experts are pretty divided as to why this trend, which is a pretty global phenomenon, is happening at all. (One interesting hypothesis is that the presence of lead in gasoline led to the spike in crime rates we witnessed from the sixties through the early nineties, while its removal has led to the subsequent die-down in crime, although this theory also has its critics.)

All of this is neither here nor there, though. The point is that the Chiefs were meeting in the context of an ongoing and massive drop in reported crime of all varieties. What was their response to this situation? A recommendation that police departments be downsized and their funding decreased?

Hardly.

The CACP issued eight resolutions, which you can read here (PDF). And unsurprisingly, almost every single one of them amounted to a request for expanded powers. (The exception was their announced intention to form a committee to further study the issue of intimate partner violence, a vague wishy-washy announcement which speaks to how important of an issue the cops really think partner violence really is.)

Although the CACP’s conference doesn’t exactly get wall-to-wall media coverage, the national press did latch onto the fact that the Chiefs want greater power to stop and search mail sent through Canada Post:

In a recently passed resolution, the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police say contraband is being sent through the mail “with impunity” because the law forbids officers from swooping in until a parcel arrives at its destination.

The resolution calls on the government to amend the legislation governing Canada Post to give police the ability to obtain a judge’s approval to “seize, detain or retain parcels or letters” in the mail stream.

A November 2012 report the R-C-M-P prepared for the chiefs’ organized crime committee revealed that firearms, grenades, a rocket launcher, stun guns, dangerous chemicals and drugs including cocaine, heroin and marijuana were sent through the mail.

But as even the friggin’ National Post knows, there’s a damn good reason the cops aren’t just allowed to search packages:

For centuries now, citizens in Western countries have insisted on the content of their letters (and back in the day, telegraphs) remaining private, realizing that it’s impossible have to an effective democracy if those in power can at any time snoop on an individual’s voting history or government critiques, or even nab their newspapers. If Elections Canada is so concerned about the privacy of the voting process that it warns of prison time for anyone who voluntarily shares a selfie of their marked ballot with the Twittersphere, then how can anyone believe greater police access to private letters — what is historically known as the legal concept of secret correspondence — isn’t going to get in the way of the free exercise of participatory government? […]

For the chiefs, the legal status quo imposes on them what they term “a significant challenge”: They are not permitted to interfere with the inside of a package or letter about which they have suspicions until the package or letter actually gets to its destined address. This, say the chiefs, requires them to find “alternative ways to work within or around” the system — which is no doubt a frustrating hassle. And yet it is also a reasonable price to pay to avoid the abuses that could so easily result from facilitating the state’s access to private correspondence.

The same criticism could be applied to many of the CACP’s power-hungry policy suggestions. Beyond wanting the ability to search through people’s mail, the topcops also proposed new laws allowing them to shut down the phone lines of suspected drug traffickers, as well as legislation to help them get around a recent Supreme Court decision which effectively killed their ability to get same-day responses to requests for customer information from telecoms and ISPs.

The phone-line-killing idea is dressed up in some seriously ridiculous prose in the CACP’s report, reminiscent of the speech by the “drug expert” in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas purporting to explain why potheads call mostly-smoked joints “roaches”, and although it doesn’t really get to the heart of the issue, I’m gonna quote it at length for the lulz:

A significant component of drug trafficking at the street level involves communication between the customer (drug user) and the seller (drug trafficker) via cellular telephone or other mobile devices (referred to “dial-a-dope” operations).

A “dial-a-dope” transaction typically begins with the procurement of a telephone number by the drug trafficker or part of his/her criminal network. This telephone number is then advertised through a variety of means including business cards and word of mouth, through the existing drug culture/network, with the intent of attracting potential customers. A potential customer then calls the number, provides a predetermined code or other information to verify that they are a customer (as opposed to a police officer), and then arranges for a drug purchase. The drug trafficker then meets the customer at the specified location and the drug transaction occurs. Once a person has been established as a “real” customer, some drug lines also use text messaging functions to arrange future transactions, leveraging the voice and data capabilities of the service providers.

(This, by the way, is coming from an organization which insists on spelling it “marihuana” despite the fact that literally nobody else does and it makes them sound like a bunch of racists from the 50s.)

The problem, the Chiefs argue, is that while they can arrest the particular dealers and seize their drugs and cars and etc., the phone lines are intangible and so can’t be seized, and those pesky telecoms refuse to play ball out of the (very legitimate) fear that they could be sued for shutting down the phone lines of a paying customer who hasn’t been convicted of anything. (Or, as the cops put it, “reliance on the corporate conscience of the phone line/number service providers is neither a practical nor effective strategy.”)

Though the CACP in another section of the report strongly denounced hackers and online criminals, and notes sternly (and absurdly) that “All cyber crime is crime. And all crime creates victims”, the proposal reports that police departments have apparently been experimenting in using what is essentially a hacking technique to shut down these so-called “dial-a-dope” operations:

Recently, significant effort has been expended to explore the use of automated telephone dialing technologies, similar to those used by telemarketers, to interrupt “dial-a-dope” communications networks. This can be accomplished through the use of auto-dialing computers that call the drug traffickers phone number with sufficient frequency to render the phone number unusable. However, this technique is essentially a “denial of service” attack and contravenes Section 430 of the Criminal Code.

But wouldn’t it be nice if the law got changed to make it legal if the cops are doing it?

Perhaps the most pernicious liberty-killing proposal the CACP made, though, was their request for “the creation of a reasonable law designed to specifically provide law enforcement the ability to obtain, in real-time or near real-time, basic subscriber information (BSI) from telecommunications providers.”

Some background from VICE:

Thanks to a recent Supreme Court decision, Canadian cops need a warrant before they can get subscriber information from telecommunication companies—which is why police are now lobbying for a legal workaround so they can access that same information without court approval.

In 2014, the Supreme Court of Canada decided that subscriber information such as names and addresses carries with it a reasonable expectation of privacy, and that accessing such information without a warrant constitutes an unlawful search. The ruling has caused “substantial resource and workload challenges for law enforcement,” according to a resolution adopted by the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police (CACP) at its annual convention in August.

In other words, cops are fed up with having to get a goddamn warrant every time they want sensitive personally identifying private information about potentially completely innocent people. Put another way, they want the right to conduct certain types of unlawful search.

And if they were granted the power to access people’s basic subscriber information in real-time, it’s not likely that they would confine its use in any way. Again from VICE:

“The lesson has been that if police are given free reign to access sensitive data, they will overuse it,” Tamir Israel, a lawyer for the Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic, wrote in an email. “The simple fact is, while unchecked powers of this nature may be convenient for police, they are excessive in nature and there is no justification for them,” he added.

Yeah no kidding. I’m sure they’re really frustrated with how hard the process of getting a warrant is, but somebody should remind them that that’s their job, and that the prohibition against unlawful warrantless searches exists for a very good reason.

What was striking about this year’s CACP conference was the casualness with which the Chiefs urged massive expansions in their powers and concomitant reductions in Canadians’ civil liberties. Of course, they used the standard justifications of trying to stop drug trafficking and child pornography, goals that have such widespread acceptance that actions taken in pursuit of them seem somehow less controversial than they would if applied to other contexts.

We started this post with the observation that crime – all kinds of crime – is down substantially over the past few decades, a trend which makes the CACP’s power-expanding proposals seem completely unnecessary. And this becomes even more true when we do a little bit more digging into the data surrounding drug crime, one of their major justifications for these frightening policies.

As StatsCan reports, drug crime is the major exception to the rule when it comes to crime rates. As most other types of crime have been declining, drug crime has gone up:

Drug crime vs overall crime rates. Courtesy StatsCan.

And StatsCan has a potential explanation for this:

The opposite trend in drug offence rates and crime rates may be related to police policies, charging practices and available resources. For example, targeted initiatives to “crack-down” on drugs may result in more incidents being identified by police, rather than more incidents actually occurring. Likewise, police may focus law enforcement efforts more on addressing drug-related crimes when time, resources and priorities permit; in other words, when other types of crime decline…

It is also possible that legislative changes may affect the drug offence rate by criminalizing certain behaviours that were not previously considered to be a crime. For instance, in May 1997, the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act (CDSA) was enacted, replacing the former Narcotics Control Act and parts of theFood and Drugs Act. This new Act broadened the scope of substances considered to be illegal and introduced the offence of production of a controlled substance (Quann, 2003).

In other words, as more serious crime has declined, police departments across Canada turned to more actively going after drug dealers (and, in many cases, casual users) in order to justify their bloated budgets and high levels of staffing. Now they want to use the need to pursue drug traffickers as a pretence for tampering with mail and remotely shutting down phone numbers without a trial. Combine that with their desire for more real-time information about people’s internet usage, and a picture starts to emerge of a police culture which is actively searching for something to do with all of its time and money and people-power.

VICE contacted the leaders of the three major parties to ask for their reactions to the CACP’s proposals, and none of them were eager to embrace any policy suggestions from the Chiefs, at least publicly. But such expanded police powers would certainly not be out of place in today’s political climate. And between Stephen Harper’s suspiciously close relationship with the RCMP, Thomas Mulcair’s extremely dubious proposal of hiring an extra 2500 cops, and Justin Trudeau’s firm embrace of civil-liberties-violating criminal Bill Blair, it’s clear that the police are an interest group with a lot of sway in the corridors of power in this country.

And if cops have it their way, their power and influence will only continue to grow, no matter how much crime rates go down or how unnecessary their massive payrolls are.

 

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