A Homeless and a Cop : Not another incident?
« Je veux que tu arrêtes d’insister et d’aller t’installer calmement au chaud, si tu veux rester au chaud, tu ne parles pas à personne. Là là, il y a quatre personnes qui ont dit que t’étais agressif et t’insistais de donner dl’argent, on n’insiste pas […] Les gens vont travailler pour ça. [point du doigt] Jte l’dis si j’ai une autre affaire au 911 j’t’attache une heure au poteau, j’te l’jure, regarde-moi dans les yeux, j’te l’jure j’t’attache au poteau pendant une heure »
These were the words said by an SPVM police official to a homeless man recorded in a video posted in the article “Montreal cop threatens to tie homeless man to pole in freezing cold” dated on January 3rd, 2014, by Global News (http://globalnews.ca/news/1060435/montreal-police-officer-threatens-to-tie-homeless-man-to-pole-video/). The police intervention occurred at Jean-Talon metro station. The video filmed by a student passerby shows a police officer confronting a homeless man concerning four complaints that he had been aggressively panhandling citizens. The video shows the intervention occurring outside on a terribly cold winter’s day and the homeless man, dressed in summer clothing. During the verbal altercation, the man did not reply nor react to the officer, despite the officer’s demeanor. It has been said that the man’s behaviour may be due to mental illness. The student filming the incident then approached the officer and made him aware that he had made a threat to the man and that this was above his discretion. The police officer told him to step back seeing as there was an intervention taking place and that is how the recording ended. Shortly after the police left, the student witness, offered clothing that he had with him and called around to different organizations to see if there was someone who could help, even though the man said he did not want assistance (cbc.ca). It was later established that the panhandler was located and taken to the hospital. Stemming from this incident, the police officer faces a range of consequences from a verbal warning to a suspension (ctvnews.ca).
This is yet another incident that provoked people’s attention towards the SPVM. The fact is than if this incident has not been recorded, only the passersby would have been aware of the police’s behaviour. There are a great deal of recorded cases involving violence and even death, towards the homeless, perpetrated by police officials. An example of such is blogged in “Kelly Thomas Verdict: Cops Now Have License to Murder” (hals1thought’sblog.wordpress.com).
I ask myself why has this situation caused such a social uproar and it is simple. We expect the conduct of a peace officer to reflect the values of society. Respect, empathy, professionalism and significantly, an appearance of neutrality («Le combattant du crime»), are what to be anticipated in their behaviour. In Ron Cameron’s blog titled Good Cop, Bad Cop, he lists the main expectancies of how a cop should present and behave himself and how he should not (actupolicing.com). He lists individual liberties as the respect and support the rights of individuals in all interactions, and the view of individual rights as an important cornerstone of their work. Nowadays, the Montreal Police is a target for media attention, since the notorious student strike, specifically, as for example, the pepper-spraying incident with officer 728. Society cannot refute the negative stigma it has towards homelessness, seeing them as pillars and a source of crime. The reality is that there are currently 30,000 homeless Canadians on the street on a daily basis, according to the Canadian Homelessness Research Network (CHRN) and the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness. Societal integration is what social control is based on and seeing as these individuals are not integrated, they slip out of normal conformities and constraints. Incidentally, the 1849 police manual defines threatening persons as all persons who are capable of working, but who refuse or neglect to do so. Nevertheless, society must be assured that police practices must not corrupt political legitimacy by taking faulty decisions both concerning offenders and their means of intervention («Le combattant du crime»). The task and duty of a police officer is to serve and protect by using their discretionary authority humanely. Some people simply do not sympathise with homelessness which in turn causes friction within social classes, but we always expect the Police to be impartial towards the dynamics of living in complex social structures. On the following day of the incident, Montreal Police Commander Ian Lafrenière stated to the press the many valuable contributions made during the recent cold spell by his department (cbc.ca). It should not be because of one bad apple that all efforts of offering a helping hand from the police should disappear.
What has become a phenomenon since the 1960’s is the strong presence of the media surrounding police interventions. This has become quite a source of important insight on policing tactics. Generally speaking, people are aware that the homeless are without a voice, and largely need sensitization regarding their situation. They were and still are prime targets of violence, crime and face higher risk of incarceration (Institute for the Prevention of crime: Homelessness, victimization and crime: Knowledge and actionable recommendations, 2008). There are a certain number of violent acts against the homeless that are not reported and not taken into consideration by the police. But the media has certainly allowed for this change. This incident for one, is an example of the use of an electronic device to denounce the actions of a police official. If the Police believes to be a constant media target, it is derived from the fact that every time there is a scandalous incident, there is reason to believe that there have been illegitimate police practices («Le combattant du crime»). Ultimately, if a cop is aware he is being filmed, he will not resort to force but to negotiation with the offender. Interestingly enough, Canada has begun trial studies implementing a camera system attached to the officers. This trend has begun in the U.S, as well as in England. The cameras are about the size of a smart phone and are clipped to the officer’s chest. Interestingly enough, in Montreal, the request for the devices came from the police officers themselves, who say videos posted online and spread on social media often fail to show the full exchange in an intervention (macleans.ca). The goal of these cameras is intended to avoid possible verbal and physical confrontation and restore trust back into the police force. But due to costs and ethical issues, this idea still requires some work efforts.
In sum, the police and society should work together and not against each other. The police need the cooperation of civilians to work against crime and violence. Do I agree with the police’s behaviour? I am ambivalent. On one side of the coin, when dealing with a mentally handicapped individual, the officer’s intervention could have been considered a scare tactic than a threat. But on the other, he could have taken into account that this is a vulnerable man without means of defending himself, and used his discretionary power to belittle him. The homeless should not be categorized as tyrants or pillars. The police have the status of not only preventing or fighting crime, but helping to mend broken social perspectives.