Hallowe’en special: there’s nothing scarier than the police

This week I couldn’t seem to go a day without hearing a horror story about police brutality, hubris, abuse of power, intimidation, or sexual violence.

The most pervasive one was, of course, the now-notorious incident in South Carolina, in which a white police officer seizes a seated young black girl from her desk and hurls her across a classroom, because she (apparently) didn’t immediately comply with his order to leave the room. The girl, reportedly grieving the recent death of her mother, was then charged with “disrupting a classroom”; the classmate who filmed the video has, absurdly, also been charged with disrupting a classroom.

This whole violent attack was disgusting, pure and simple. (I say this based purely on the descriptions I’ve read of the assault, because I myself haven’t watched the footage, nor do I intend to. I likewise didn’t watch Eric Garner’s slow suffocation on a New York City sidewalk, or look at the photos of Mike Brown’s body left lying in the hot Ferguson streets for hours after his extrajudicial execution. I read about these things, and that’s disturbing enough for me.)

Speaking out against such abuse can be costly, though, as superstar film director Quentin Tarantino found out this week. At a New York City rally against police brutality organized by a group called Rise Up October, Tarantino said:

“This is not being dealt with in any way at all. That’s why we are out here. If it was being dealt with, then these murdering cops would be in jail or at least be facing charges. When I see murders, I do not stand by. I have to call a murder a murder, and I have to call the murderers the murderers.”

The backlash against Tarantino from police apologists was immediate and intense. The national police union, echoing calls from the NYPD, LAPD, and departments in Philadelphia, Chicago, Houston, and New Jersey, has called for a boycott of Tarantino and his forthcoming film. Media coverage has largely fallen in line with the police angle, repeatedly falling back on the supposed insensitivity of the timing of the protest, which took place within a week of the on-duty death of an NYPD officer. In an attempt to make the protest appear out-of-bounds radical, the ostensibly left-leaning Guardian quotes the rally’s organizers as saying that police brutality amounts to a “genocidal assault on black and Latino people in this country”.

Lost amidst all this furor is the reality of the situation, which is that police Tarantino’s words are completely accurate: officers in the United States routinely get away with murder, and nothing is being done to deal with this dire crisis.To give but one example, the aforementioned Eric Garner was murdered in broad daylight and on camera, strangled to death for the unproven crime of selling loose cigarettes on a street corner, and his killer, Daniel Pantaleo, is to this day a free man, after a grand jury declined to press charges against him.

Or let’s bring things closer to home. The ongoing trial of Sammy Yatim’s murderer, Toronto police officer James Forcillo, continued to attract press attention this week. The very fact that Forcillo is facing charges is in itself remarkable, and for me, it has to be seen in the context to the community reaction to Yatim’s death. I attended a protest outside of 14 Division headquarters in the days after Yatim’s death, and it was unquestionably the angriest, rowdiest, outrage-est bunch of rabble-rousers I have ever seen in Toronto.

Forcillo’s defence largely rests on the license to kill which is given to police officers. This license isn’t unconditional, of course; only in certain extremely broad circumstances is the use of lethal force permitted. In brief, the use of lethal force must be “reasonable and necessary“, as Forcillo’s trial judge heard this week.

And there is a good chance that such a line of defence will be successful for Forcillo, despite the glaringly obvious fact that his volley of bullets was patently unreasonable and unnecessary. Yatim, who had harmed nobody, was surrounded and isolated, and armed only with a relatively small knife.

And yes, no doubt we’ll hear a great deal about how dangerous knives can be in close quarters – just as we did in the aftermath of the shooting of Michael Elgion, who was armed with nothing but scissors and wearing a gown from the hospital he had just escaped when he too was shot dead by a Toronto police officer who walked free.

That doesn’t mean that these oft-repeated inanities are true. It merely means that our criminal justice system is set up in a way which is incredibly credulous and deferential towards police officers, regardless of how outrageous or egregious their behaviour is.

TPS officers were in the news as well this week due to a video released by the Toronto Star showing TAVIS (Toronto Anti-Violence Intervention Strategy) officers harassing and intimidating a man who was filming an arrest in the Jane-Finch neighbourhood. I defy you to watch the video (which btw is completely non-graphic) without becoming filled with impotent rage and frustration.

This type of harassment, as cop-watcher extraordinaire Desmond Cole points out, is probably 100% legal – and the province of Ontario’s new (yet-to-be-implemented) restrictions on the long-despised practice of carding will do nothing to address this type of behaviour:

Too many residents — especially those who are black, indigenous, homeless, or living with mental illness — can recount stories similar to [Mike] Miller’s [the man who filmed the video]. They rarely have the video evidence to prove what we should all collectively know by now: the police regularly abuse their authority when dealing with vulnerable and marginalized people.

New rules and technologies can help discourage bad behaviour and hold officers to account when they transgress, but without tackling the ingrained culture of police intimidation no real solution to this problem is possible. Indeed, the arresting officers in Miller’s incident directed their TAVIS colleagues to “turn the camera on that guy,” to use their recording devices as a tool of intimidation. Equipping police with body cameras is different from insisting that police respect all residents, and ensuring that those who do not are taken off the streets. [my bold]

I bolded that phrase because that’s the common thread in almost all of the stories I bring up in this piece – the abuse of the vulnerable and the marginalized. Speaking as a white man who shares his writing among a predominately white audience, I feel that this is important to point out repeatedly and loudly: people like us don’t typically see the worst aspects of police behaviour. We tend to get the benefit of the doubt. We tend to get off easier. We tend not to get shot eight times when some simple and widely-taught deescalation tactics will suffice to defuse the situation. We tend not to get thrown across classrooms by burly armed men twice our size.

And while women of all races are the victims of sexual assaults on a distressingly frequent basis, you just don’t seem to hear too many stories about white women being driven to remote locations and being sexually assaulted by provincial police officers.

Sadly – shamefully – that’s a story that’s all too familiar to Indigenous women in Canada.

I wrote last week about the suspension of eight Sûreté du Québec (SQ) officers in Val d’Or over accusations of widespread abuse and sexual assault of Native women in that community, a pattern of predation that will be disturbingly familiar to Indigenous women in northern British Columbia. The reaction by Quebec police to the suspension over the last week has been hubristically and stunningly shameful.

First of all, most of Val d’Or’s police force simply refused to turn up for work the weekend after their colleagues were suspended. I suppose they thought they were showing solidarity with their fellow officers, but the message that unequivocally sends is that cops look after each other before anybody else, regardless of the context.

Then, the police had the temerity to demand an apology from Quebec Public Security Minister Lise Thériault for having the outrageous temerity to weep when discussing the horrific accusation which have been levelled against eight SQ members, in a petition which reads: “Through the lack of control of her emotions and through her words, minister Thériault helped increase the public’s anger toward the police officers of Quebec”.

So, in short, white SQ officers conduct a reign of terror upon the Indigenous women of Val d’Or, get caught, throw a hissy fit, and blame a government minister for the fact that the public is angry at them? And then there’s the whole “she can’t control her emotions” misogynistic aspect to all this.

Even the thoroughly middle-of-the-road don’t-rock-the-boat commuter freebie Metro thinks that Thériault has nothing to be ashamed of:

She didn’t simply call the allegations upsetting. She actually got upset…Chastising the minister for her tears ignores the wider injustice she is responding to, the pervasive oppression of indigenous people.

Politicians cry over many things — their grandmothers, their colleagues, their own jobs. Theriault cried for an often disempowered and alienated few.

But, as the CBC’s Neil MacDonald astutely points out, things aren’t likely to change much as a result of this public outcry:

But the SQ, which came into being in the late 1930s as bullyboys and strikebreaking thugs in the service of then premier Maurice Duplessis, has a reputation for operating by its own rules…

A 1998 report by the provincially appointed Poitras commission concluded that the SQ simply cannot be trusted to investigate itself, and described a culture of willful blindness to members’ misdeeds.

Retired judge Lawrence Poitras concluded that officers accused of abuse often retaliate with criminal charges against the accusers in order to cover their tracks.

What’s more, as the force’s many critics in Quebec have written, the SQ has a singular weapon against its political masters: it is the only force in Quebec authorized to investigate political corruption.

And there’s the rub right there – the cops have got the politicians by their short ‘n curlies.

In a lot of ways, that’s where they’ve got us all. They commit violence with near-impunity, intimidate and oppress and attack marginalized communities, lash out at their critics, and stymie most attempts to subject them to higher standards or more vigorous oversight.

And not one of the stories I’ve outlined here provides much promise for changing that dynamic.

Truly, I couldn’t think of a more terrifying horror story to tell on Hallowe’en than a plain and simple recitation of just some of the more prominent recent examples of police abuse and arrogance – and that very fact itself is maybe the most terrifying one of all.

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