Transparency, accountability key to police trust

Police forces internationally are suffering from a crisis of public confidence. There are valid reasons for concern.

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Police forces internationally are suffering from a crisis of public confidence. There are valid reasons for concern.

In the United States, hundreds of people die annually during encounters with police. There were 1,096 fatal police-involved shootings in 2022 with citizens of colour disproportionately represented, according to an ongoing investigation by the Washington Post.

The high-profile killings of unarmed Black citizens — including George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and, most recently, the brutal beating death of Tyre Nichols at the hands of Memphis officers — have led to social justice movements and put modern policing under the microscope.

In Canada, 87 people were shot by police last year, 46 fatally. The numbers may seem small compared to our southern neighbours, but this represents a 25 per cent increase in police shootings over previous years, a Canadian Press investigation found. Race was a similar factor, with Indigenous people and Canadians of colour inordinately affected by police violence. Many of the shooting victims were suffering from a mental-health or addictions-related crisis.

At a bare minimum, transparency and accountability should be expected.

Citizens, the people these forces have sworn to protect, are right to be wary. Especially when police departments in most jurisdictions receive a significant share of municipal funding. At a bare minimum, transparency and accountability should be expected.

This is the backdrop against which a plea deal for a Winnipeg cop involved in a high-speed collision was received in February.

In October 2021, Const. Bradley Louden was driving 50 kilometres an hour over the speed limit in an unmarked police cruiser when he collided with another vehicle, sending the driver, a woman in her 20s, to hospital in critical condition.

The investigation found Louden had been speeding without just cause and had used his vehicle’s emergency lights and siren to clear traffic because he and his partner were running late for a surveillance assignment.

While the woman — who has since recovered from three broken vertebrae and a fractured pelvis — made an unsafe turn into an uncontrolled intersection, the whole incident could have been avoided if Louden hadn’t been misusing police equipment. On Feb. 22, the officer pleaded guilty to a single count of speeding and was fined $780. A dangerous driving charge was stayed by the Crown.

The decision has raised questions about the treatment of police by the justice system.

“It really risks feeding into that perception that for whatever reason, police are not held to the same standards and they aren’t prosecuted to the same level as normal citizens,” criminal defence lawyer Karl Gowenlock told the Free Press.

If a civilian had been involved in a similar collision because they were late for work, would they have walked out of court with little more than a preset traffic-violation fine? Likely not.

The exact circumstances of the plea deal remain unclear, leaving the public to make its own assumptions about the execution of justice in this case. While it may not be true, the conclusion many will jump to is that Mr. Louden has received special treatment because of his badge.

Trust is earned, not given.

Public perception is an important factor in policing. Trust affects the public’s willingness to report crimes and co-operate with officers. Trust is earned, not given.

A 2019 Statistics Canada survey indicated Winnipeggers had the lowest levels of confidence in police of any jurisdiction in the country. The Winnipeg Police Service and, by extension, the criminal justice system were already suffering from waning public confidence. This case is unlikely to improve those sentiments.

While justice may have been served within a provincial courtroom, the expectations of transparency and accountability have not been met in the court of public opinion.

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