Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 8/8/2020 (207 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
SOCIAL contracts have existed ever since people joined together to form communities. Simply put, people enter into agreements that define the rights and duties granted to and expected of each other.
When I began my career as a police officer, whether I knew it or not, I entered into a social contract with the community I wanted to serve. It began with the premise that I would conduct myself with honesty and integrity, that I would perform my duties to the best of my ability without fear or favour, and would treat all people equally and with respect.
In return, I agreed to be held to a higher standard, to be accountable for my actions. I viewed policing as an honourable profession, and expected to be treated accordingly.
As police officers, we play by the rules — and there are a lot of rules. We are guided by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the Criminal Code, the Police Services Act, and the City of Winnipeg Charter. These acts establish systems and remedies when police break the rules or make a mistake:
1. It can result in an independent criminal investigation.
2. It can result in an independent or internal regulatory investigation.
3. It can result in a civil lawsuit.
During the 145-year history of the Winnipeg Police Service, all of these remedies have been used. Consequences have ranged from police officers being admonished, for minor regulatory infractions, up to and including individual officers being charged and convicted of murder. The systems established by our government hold police accountable. They may not be perfect, but they have proven to work, and they continue to be revised and improved upon.
The social contract between the community and the police has been showing signs of erosion for some time. I remember the exact moment when I experienced this shift: I was testifying in a criminal case and was being cross-examined by a defence attorney about my observations of his client; he was rigorously contesting my testimony when suddenly he suggested that I was lying to the court.
I was gobsmacked. A well-known defence lawyer was calling me a liar in a public court, without any evidence to support his assertions. I was stunned, and greatly offended; the social contract that I had entered into had been breached. That was more than 20 years ago.
Today, that shifting social contract is being amplified by a loud and self-righteous segment of our community that uses social media as a platform to reject the need for police. People associated with important societal institutions have been emboldened by what appears to be a demonstration of how "woke" they are about movements like #DefundPolice. In an age that demands instant gratification, this is a dangerous combination.
It has become de rigueur to challenge the integrity of police officers, except now on a much broader scale. This isn’t a defence attorney questioning the integrity of an individual officer; now it is an editorial board challenging the integrity of police leaders without having all the facts. Now it’s selected academic "experts" who take the opportunity to denounce the police.
All of this serves to undermine the social contract between the community and the police.
I am not oblivious to the social movements going on around us. I support changes that address the inequalities experienced by those who identify as Black, Indigenous and people of colour. As chief of police, I have endeavoured to meet the needs of our diverse community through a strategy that includes recruitment, policy and training.
These efforts are inclusive of our community. The fact remains that police are being called upon by the community more than in the past.
The social contract I entered into with our community is unique. I didn’t enter into an agreement with the people of Minneapolis, or the people of Atlanta. I am accountable to the people of Winnipeg.
Police in our community are among the most regulated professions in society. It is alarming to see systems established to hold police accountable being cavalierly dismissed by those in favour of immediate and drastic changes, without first taking the time to learn or understand what currently exists.
The idea that police officers — or anyone, for that matter — should be publicly shamed or held publicly accountable without first establishing whether they’ve done anything wrong is a further erosion of the social contract between us. Frankly, the steady and constant drumbeat of criticism is taking a toll on the well-being of the women and men who dedicate themselves to serving our community. There is nothing honourable in that.
Danny Smyth is chief of the Winnipeg Police Service.