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Some police duties are better handled by police officers

July 2020

With the “Defunding the Police” movement gaining traction in many cities, the municipal council in Berkeley, California, announced back in March it plans to look at forming a special traffic enforcement department that will use unarmed city workers to conduct traffic stops, instead of police officers.

Back in March, the municipal council in Berkeley, California, announced it would look at forming a special traffic enforcement department that will use unarmed city workers to conduct traffic stops, instead of police officers.

The idea of using civilian employees to perform what had traditionally been police duties is not a new idea. Decades ago, police services across North America have seen duties like dispatching, various station duties, prisoner transport and handling, and court security, turned over to civilians, some of whom are sworn as special constables.

Toronto Police have employed uniformed special constables for many of these duties for several decades, and have recently started using special constables for other duties such as, “…writing occurrence reports and other required documentation, guarding crime scenes, taking witness statements, canvassing for witnesses and videos, and assisting front desk staff at divisional police stations…*” alongside the civilian station duty operators.

Most of these positions don’t necessarily put these civilian employees in positions where they might be face to face with an armed suspect, or if they do, an armed constable is usually not far away. However, traffic stops can be one of the more dangerous duties a police officer will have to do. When an officer pulls over a vehicle for any kind of infraction, you never know who is in the driver’s seat until you are right beside the driver’s door (or the passenger side door, something I routinely did at traffic stops – surprising many drivers who expected to see me at their side of the vehicle).

Even a check of the vehicle licence plate before exiting your police car will only tell you who the registered owner is, and their criminal and licence status if it’s a person and not a corporation, if the plate is valid, or if the vehicle is reported stolen (and I emphasize REPORTED stolen).

Many police officers have been wounded or killed conducting traffic stops, which are one of the most dangerous thing police officers do in the course of a shift. Having a sidearm is a prudent self-defence tool, along with other elements such as a professional looking uniform and observational skills.

That brings me to another point: What type of uniform does Berkeley City Council propose their traffic enforcers would they be wearing? If these new traffic enforcers look more like tour guides than enforcement officers, this can lead to numerous problems. The first level in the Use of Force Wheel is “Officer Presence.” Just the mere presence of a uniformed officer can ensure compliance and cooperation.

What authority would they have to deal with criminal offences, like impaired driving? Would they have any authority to pursue vehicles that refuse to stop? If the answer is no, all the offenders need to do is simply drive away, perhaps at high enough of a speed that said officer isn’t able to view and advise dispatchers of the licence plate for follow-up.

Would these new traffic officers have the authority to detain a suspect until the arrival of a police officer when one is needed? What sort of defensive equipment and training would they be issued?

Although the idea of using civilian employees for traffic enforcement isn’t entirely a new concept, as municipalities in Alberta employ unarmed officers for by-law and traffic enforcement, they are sworn as special constables, which confers a certain degree of legal authority on them.

While a Municipal District of Foothills (Alberta) Peace Officer, retired RCMP officer Rod Lazenby, was killed in 2012 while responding to an animal complaint, I won’t go so far as to say that all uniformed police and special constables should be armed, even though that would be a good idea. I will say that having properly trained and qualified armed officers should never be seen as a terrible idea. Even something as routine as an animal complaint, or a noise complaint, can turn deadly very quickly.

While many Alberta peace officers do have shotgun, they are usually for putting down injured animals.

I know this many be an awkward time to be talking about arming more officers, with all the police-involved shootings lately, but this is not a time to be shy about stating facts either.

One fact is that despite what we see in cop TV shows and movies, not all police officers fire their service weapons as often as seen on the screen. In reality, the vast majority of police officers only ever fire their gun at the firing range for their annual qualification test.

By the way, if TV and movie producers want to portray policing more realistically, they should show all the paperwork that officers have to do when they fire their guns (do you ever see TV cops writing anything, even in their issue memobooks?); all the supervisory oversight and internal follow-up that’s involved afterwards; the investigations by oversight agencies, like Ontario’s SIU, that occur afterwards; the inquiries and court hearings that involved officers have to go through; maybe show the occasional officer go to prison as a result of a shooting. Just a thought.

Another fact is that at one time, Canada’s Boarder Services Officers didn’t have the authority to detain an impaired driver at a border crossing. All they could do was call the local police service and give them the direction of travel.

When you take into consideration the number of police interactions every day, the number that result in a shooting are extremely small. I know that’s little comfort to family members of someone shot, including of a shot officer, but let’s be realistic about the numbers.

Now I do realize that may sound like I’m making an argument against myself, but the idea of providing law enforcement officers with defensive weapons, like firearms, is about giving them the greatest odds of not being a part of that very small number. Many fire codes mandate having sprinklers in buildings, not because someone is hoping the building will catch fire, but to mitigate any damage if one does start.

I don’t profess to have all the answers, but a lot of issues with improper use of firearms by police comes down to training and psychological examinations. When I was a cop, I participated in many training scenarios involving the use of “Simunition” bullets, which are low-velocity projectiles fired out of specially fitted guns, something like paint-balls. On more than one occasion, when faced with an agitated and armed “suspect,” I kept repeating, sometimes out loud and sometimes in my mind, “Please drop the knife/gun. I don’t want to shoot you.” Even though I know in the back of my mind that no one will really die if I pull the trigger, presumably since I’m not a psychopath, I still didn’t want to shoot unless I absolutely had to do it.

This “Simunition Training,” is designed to replicate as close as possible the real feelings and adrenaline rushes that you would get in the real situation. Although we all did get a bit of a kick out of “shooting” the trainers playing the part of the “bad guy,” I did recommend to trainers on occasion, to design more scenarios that didn’t automatically end in a shooting, so that we could practice de-escalation skills too.

Sources: https://www.policeone.com/traffic-patrol/articles/berkeley-moves-forward-with-police-free-traffic-stops-H8ahd4LOjRbjHrvR/?utm_source=PoliceOne+Member+Newsletter&utm_campaign=08421df594-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2020_07_15_06_42&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_ca044a84ea-08421df594-42453239, https://edmonton.ctvnews.ca/petition-started-to-arm-alberta-s-peace-officers-1.917678, https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/calgary/alberta-rod-lazenby-fatality-inquiry-1.4156099, https://bluelivesmatter.blue/berkeley-city-council-votes-to-have-unarmed-city-employees-conduct-traffic-stop/?fbclid=IwAR0wDO8lDsxPyDj5pnarT4vON8dU6VK8Gkls4HUfFHE_NHtxj0gUB-3tLGI.

*Quote – https://www.blueline.ca/toronto-police-hiring-32-more-district-special-constables-by-fall-2019.

About the author

Bruce Forsyth

Bruce Forsyth served in the Royal Canadian Navy Reserve for 13 years (1987-2000). He served with units in Toronto, Hamilton & Windsor and worked or trained at CFB Esquimalt, CFB Halifax, CFB Petawawa, CFB Kingston, CFB Toronto, Camp Borden, The Burwash Training Area and LFCA Training Centre Meaford.

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