Reforming police leadership, the time is now

By Brian A. Grosman Q.C.

Police leadership is faced with the complexity of today’s society combined with a rising universal demand for police accountability for their actions. Over the last 35 years, if not more, police have accumulated enormous power and discretion supported by the courts. Police unions have placed inordinate restraints on police leadership so that they cannot act to punish police breach of law and policy within their own force. Too many police force unions make it virtually impossible for the Chief to sanction police misconduct. Internal police units end up policing their police brothers. As a result police suffer little or no disciplinary consequences for their actions that abuse and even kill the people that they are supposed to serve and protect. Lack of visibility of their behaviour is only now coming to the forefront as a direct result of body cameras, public access to iPhone, security cameras and the protest of the obvious inequality of enforcement. Protest has awakened the sleeping giant so that the public and through them the politicians, become aware of the power of the police and the inadequacy of their leadership.

Many years ago strong authoritarian leadership over a compliant force was considered ideal. Police fought crime. That was their mandate. The para-military approach to policing based on command and control continues to this day. Too often police leadership is primarily symbolic and only continues with the consent of the members of the force led by its union leadership. If the Chief goes along she/he will get along. Otherwise the Chief will be in a losing battle with the union and those police board members who depend on the union membership for support in the next municipal election. If the Chief does not exemplify the norms current police values and codes of behaviour and makes decisions which are contrary to the conception of the group she/he may find himself in a position of total powerlessness. With the support of the force, added to his official authority, his power is substantial. The “wild card” is the power of protest aimed at dismantling and defunding the traditional police force and with it, its leadership, in spite of police and political support for that leader.

To change Policing you must change police policy. Policy must reflect reality not political expediency. It must be clearly articulated and be backed up with the financial and personnel resources that make effective implementation possible. Otherwise a police Chief’s wish list is just that, wishful thinking. The problem with cutting police funding is that you drain core funding without improving public safety, which is supposed to be the policing priority.

First to change policing, one must change policing priorities without reducing public safety. Improve the intellectual, communication skills and the background requirements for the Chief. Working one’s way up the ladder of the force is insufficient background, without much, much more.

Second, the strength of the union decision- making over police practices must be significantly reduced.

Third, Police services have to be unbundled so that police do not continue to supply domestic and mental health first responder and general community services.

Fourth, Recognition of the need for sensitive interaction between the police and minority communities and the underprivileged. Police can no longer be perceived, as an occupying force that fails to understand systemic racism and its historic consequences by those most subject to policing.

Visibility and accountability of police for their actions must become a priority. Unconnected civilian oversight and an independent police complaints commission with power to recommend discipline to the Chief are both needed, along with a public record of proven police misconduct.

Traditionally Police leadership has derived its authority from the Chief’s professional competence as well as the support of the force, the Provincial Premier/Attorney-General/Mayor/Governor, the police board and from the vast majority of the community that the police must serve. But in today’s atmosphere, that is merely the starting point.

We are moving into a whole new era of police accountability and reform.

About the Author:
Brian Grosman worked with, and observed police leadership across Canada which resulted in his book “Police Command, Decisions and Discretion”. Shortly thereafter he was appointed as a one man Commission of Inquiry to rebuild and reform the Police Force of Prince Edward Island. He was a consultant on the Amalgamation of the Greater Winnipeg Metropolitan Police force and the Greater Toronto Police Force. He subsequently served on the Metropolitan, Toronto Police Complaints Commission. He was elected to the Executive of The Quebec Society of Criminology and also to the Executive of The American Society of Criminology. He was awarded the Beccaria Prize, for contribution to Law Reform and Criminal Justice in the Province of Quebec. As a professor of Law at McGill University, he taught Criminology in the Department of Sociology and Criminal Procedure and Criminal Law at the College of Law. He was recruited to fill the position of Professor of Law, College of Law University of Saskatchewan and shortly thereafter appointed by the Premier of Saskatchewan as the founding Chairman of the Law Reform Commission.