Prime Time Crime


(Published in the Chilliwack Times week of Dec. 13, 2010)


Public relations in a freefall


  By John Martin


There is much to envy in New Orleans despite the impact of Hurricane Katrina a while back. The food is absolutely spectacular. It's home to one of the best music scenes in the world. Mardi Gras is probably the biggest party in North America and the people, most of them, are friendly to a fault.

It's a different picture when we throw in the local police however. New Orleans law enforcement has been horrifically corrupt and problematic over the years. Things were so bad that during the 1980s the tourist bureau actually put out literature warning visitors to try to avoid any and all contact with law enforcement. One brochure actually advised people who were being flagged down or pulled over by police to try to make the contact take place in a public setting with lots of potential witnesses.

Police were regularly robbing and both physically and sexually assaulting citizens and tourists. Officers were paid little more than minimum wage and were routinely hired despite lengthy criminal records themselves. A famous and often referred to scenario took place in court when a prosecutor asked the jury who are they going to believe; a police officer sworn to uphold the law or a twice convicted drug dealer? Everyone in attendance burst out laughing, as it was a no-brainer. The felon was automatically assumed to be trustworthier. Even the judge smirked.

Despite decades of overhaul and genuine reform, the perception remains that New Orleans policing is rotten to the core.

Mercifully, we're a long ways from that situation in Canada. But perception is everything and I genuinely fear for the future of public/police relations. Not a week goes by that the media doesn't report, often with video footage, another incident of police brutalizing an innocent citizen or dispensing street justice to a suspect who poses no threat whatsoever.

The footage of Ottawa police kneeing and stripping a young woman who had done nothing more than ask why she had been stopped and questioned is particularly revolting. But it just seems to be the latest in a long line of such occurrences. There comes a tipping point where this type of behaviour can no longer be dismissed as a miscommunication or a couple of bad apples.

We're just beginning to grasp the extent of police misconduct at the G20 Summit and it appears the stench is going to be unbearable.

So what's going on? Has this stuff always been happening but the proliferation of cellphone cameras, police detachment surveillance video and YouTube makes it appear as though it's a new phenomenon? Are the streets so much meaner that police have become more cynical, frustrated and angry? Are police agencies having difficulty attracting and hiring quality candidates who are able to avoid bringing shame and disrepute to the profession?

All of these likely factor into the equation. But the response to incidents and credible allegations of corruption, criminality and thuggish brutality must also be taken into account. Time and time again we hear of officers involved in scandalous behaviour returning to the job. This is hardly a sound strategy to regain public trust.

Firing some of these out of control officers would surely result in expensive litigation and wrongful dismissal lawsuits.

Keeping them on is going to cost much, much more in the long run.

John Martin is a Criminologist at the University of the Fraser Valley and can be contacted at


Prime Time Crime

Contributing 2010