Archives for category: Crime and Justice

I used to work for the Ontario Minister of Community Safety and Correctional Services. So I have first-hand experience in knowing that there are some things you don’t want politicized. Public security – including policing, corrections, emergency management and anti-terrorism activities – is a special area of public service. People with guns, people who have powers of arrest, detention and investigation should be shielded from political interference in operations. Their independence is absolutely fundamental to the most basic concept of justice. Additionally, how their work is communicated to the public should also be free of political interference – as this is at the core of the trust that citizens need to have in their police and public security services.

With this in mind, some recent events are worrying.

First thing: Vic Toews, Canada’s Minister of Public Safety, recently overruled a prison warden (and, in doing so, apparently broke the established rules) who approved a media interview with Omar Khadr. Why? There was no real explanation from Toews or his office. That story, by the way, was only told because the Canadian Press filed an Access to Information request. I suspect that it was because Vic and Stephen Harper do not want us hearing from someone convicted by a military tribunal of terrorism, even if they are Canadian, even if they have the right to speak and even if they happen to be appealing their sentence. Otherwise we might lose focus on how the government – not the police – are keeping us safe from terrorists. But regardless of what I suspect, this is political interference in an operational decision for decidedly political reasons.

Second thing: Recently, CBC News revealed that RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson circulated a memo that outlined a new process for approving meetings between senior officers and MPs and Senators. The new system? All meetings have to be approved by Vic Toews’s office.

Why this new process?

At first, only the RCMP would respond to this question, saying it “wanted to ensure that all information being sent to parliamentarians was co-ordinated through the strategic policy and planning directorate which manages the ministerial liaison function.”

Then, when a reporter asked why, Toews said (the underlines are mine):

I don’t clear as the appropriate[ness] of any interview. Interviews are done all the time with the RCMP without them clearing it but there is a communications protocol that does take place between the RCMP and my office, absolutely. I’m responsible for the RCMP. I need to know exactly what the RCMP is doing and saying because if I go into the House of Commons and I have no idea what is being said, I’m at a distinct situation where it appears that I’m not carrying out my responsibilities to the House of Commons. So the communication discussions that go on between us, I think are quite normal and certainly were in effect under the prior Liberal government as I recall.

When asked to clarify, Toews said:

Well they don’t clear it with my office but essentially what happens, especially if it’s MPs from my party, they’ll come to me and say, look I want to talk to the RCMP and I’ll refer them to an individual and that’s the end of it. I don’t see any more of that.

So, Minister Toews and his office don’t clear meeting requests, but they do enforce a “communications protocol.” I have no idea what that means, but I wonder why the Minister sees the need to have that degree of oversight and approval over meetings and communications between our national police force and elected MPs.

We should all be concerned about how the hot hand of politics is reaching into parts of the government that should be stone cold objective. Because trust is a difficult thing to build, and we all need to trust those who are tasked with keeping us safe.

Few things irritate me as much as politicians (and certain sycophantic elements of the media) who pay lip service to “science” and “evidence” while pursuing policies that are based on pure bullshit – sometimes called “common sense”.

In a contemporary context, much of the debate about global warming and climate change in the U.S. and Canada is infected with this, as is much of the debate over crime and punishment (another post on this will arrive soon, by the way).

A good example of this arose recently when Justin Trudeau wondered why domestically radicalized terror suspects (from the alleged VIA train bombing plot) chose the path of political violence. Barak Obama asked the same question about the Boston suspects. Stephen Harper, however, said this is not the time to “commit sociology” because it would detract from his government’s condemnation of the plot.

And with this, science was once again tossed aside in the service of pure partisan exploitation of a very serious issue. Who cares why this stuff happens, after all? That’s for academics.

Here’s an excellent opinion piece on why Stephen Harper’s comments – and the values they represent – are worth thinking about.  I’m posting it not because I dislike conservatives, but because ignoring science and fact is no way to make smart decisions about public policy. Because ultimately, we all pay for bad policy.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the media coverage surrounding the verdict of Richard Kachkar.

He was found Not Criminally Responsible (NCR) for running down a Toronto police officer with a stolen snowplow.  I bemoaned the media coverage for failing to balance the tragedy of the death with facts about how those found to be NCR are treated by the justice system and by the mental health system.

A recent Canadian documentary from director John Kastner called NCR: Not Criminally Responsible focuses on exactly this issue, and the conclusions are that it is an appropriate and effective method of dealing with those mentally ill who have committed terrible crimes.

This review of the film, and the information provided to contextualize NCR, would have been very good to see in the media at the time of the verdict. In particular, the documentary shows how the authorities tasked with overseeing the treatment and socialization of those found to be NCR are doing a pretty good job – and how they are not being influenced by the sadly predominant school of thought that considers punishment behind bars to be all that we need.

Too bad it took a documentary to spur the kind of media coverage we should have had weeks ago. On the other hand, documentaries provide some of the best journalism and storytelling around these days.

The Star, in particular, has been busy filling in the gaps. This story, and this one, should be checked out. As well, this CP story about criticisms of the Harper government’s proposed changes to the law overseeing NCR should not be missed.

NCR: Not Criminally Responsible is playing at the Toronto Hot Docs festival.

I digested the media coverage of the Richard Kachkar’s sentencing with a bad taste in my mouth. Yesterday, he was found not criminally responsible for killing Toronto Police Sgt. Ryan Russell; a result that can hardly be considered surprising for those who have been paying attention to the trial.

Yet, quite a bit of the media coverage focused more on the victims’ emotional response (“no closure”, “no justice”, “Sgt. Russell deserved better”), than on explaining the practical implications of Kachkar being found not criminally responsible. While in no way wanting to deny the obvious pain Kachkar caused Russell’s family, I was hoping for media coverage that would balance the tragic perspective with some objective facts that would explain how, far from walking free, Kachkar will undoubtedly be treated by professionals in a secure psychiatric facility under the close supervision of the Ontario Review Board, and could – depending on his treatment and progress – remain in custody for quite a few years. The Board will review his status every year, and this process will determine whether he gets out and under what conditions. And, importantly, public safety is the primary consideration for the Board in determining whether people like Kachkar get released.

Ok, so this wasn’t given equal play in media coverage. So what?

I think this is important because the media coverage is enabling and shaping public perception of public safety issues and how governments respond. Specifically – and bluntly – unbalanced and superficial media coverage of public safety issues enables unbalanced and superficial public safety policy. When we get media coverage of crime that is all about victims, then the laws will reflect that.

Here’s an example of how this works: After Kachkar’s verdict was announced, Ryan’s widow Christine scrummed outside of the courthouse and made a point of mentioning her support for the Not Criminally Responsible Reform Act, a classic Stephen Harper piece of legislation that purports to “make our streets and communities safer,” and “ensures that not criminally responsible accused people found to be too dangerous to release are no longer a threat to their victims or Canadian communities.” In fact, it is another pointless and unhelpful bill that changes little, will impact only a handful of people and will not stop this type of tragedy from happening again. However, it will reinforce the idea that our streets are filled with danger (Stephen Harper is building new prisons while crime rates are currently at a 40-year low) and that the mentally ill are merely criminals with convenient excuses. Don’t forget that fear, ignorance and political expediency drive  Harper’s correction policy; not expert research or facts.

Less crime, more fear (Image: Canada.com)

Does this approach to public policy remind you of anything? Climate change policy? Ignoring and muzzling scientists?

I regret that people feel the punishment doesn’t fit the crime. I regret that people feel that correctional policy should be built around the idea that even the mentally ill must suffer in proportion to the terrible crimes they sometime commit.

But the truth is that the process is generally fair and objective – and that is how the justice system should be. Not vengeful and emotional. Media coverage should make sure people understand that.