By Edward Keenan
The Ontario Provincial Police Association—the union representing provincial cops—has issued a press release and two ads attacking Tim Hudak and the provincial Progressive Conservative party. The ads—the first political campaign endorsements in the organization’s history, they say—do not explicitly support the Liberals or the NDP, and “this also does not mean that we don’t respect and work well with many in the Conservative caucus. We just don’t want this Conservative as Premier.”
This involvement of police—identifying themselves as police officers and making a statement in their role as police officers—is a bad idea. Very bad.
UPDATE: I didn’t include a description in my original post, but now that the ads seem to have been removed from the union’s website, it’s worth noting that one of them opened with a shot of a uniformed officer in a police car, and the voiceover said, “We’re the OPP and we’re here to keep you safe…” This certainly comes across as a direct attempt to associate the message of the ads with the police force itself. END UPDATE
These are armed agents of the government who, in their jobs, are charged with upholding the rule of law in our province. A non-partisan justice system—including courts and police forces—is a cornerstone of the legitimacy of our democracy. We need to know that our police forces and the officers in them will use the powers they have been given (extraordinary powers of coercion and investigation) to enforce the laws without favouritism and without applying their own opinions of the law’s wisdom, and to do so evenly no matter who writes those laws. The job of the police is not to participate in legislation. It’s to enforce it impartially.
No one pulled over for a traffic stop should have to wonder if the campaign bumper sticker on their fender flagged them for attention. No one calling the police for help should have to wonder if the campaign sign on their lawn will influence response times or how seriously their complaint will be investigated. No candidate for office should fear whether the extraordinary espionage capabilities of our police forces will be used against them politically. There should never be any question about whether the armed resources and authority we have given to our police officers so that they can do their job will be used to influence our elections. When police, as police, get involved in political debates, they open up these suspicions and fears.
Those are my thoughts. They are not shared by everyone.
There’s history here, of course. Though the OPP Association has never gotten involved like this before, not too long ago the Toronto Police Association made a regular habit of openly supporting some candidates in elections.
They endorsed Mel Lastman for mayor. In 2003, they endorsed the Conservative Party (then led by Ernie Eves) in the provincial election. Also in 2003, they endorsed John Tory for mayor as well as a slate of city council candidates (including Rob Ford, Frances Nunziata, Peter Milczyn, Mark Grimes, Doug Holyday, and current police board member Michael Thompson). In that race, they published ads alongside the home addresses and phone numbers of candidates, asking the public to call them and ask what they were doing to ensure public safety.
Even before the police union had issued that 2003 endorsement, candidates David Miller and Barbara Hall had publicly said they thought police unions should not be offering these opinions.
“If it is possible to not accept an endorsement, then I would,” Miller said to Catherine Porter of the Star. “I think it is inappropriate in a democratic country.”
Back then, John Tory accepted the endorsement, saying the union was like any other. But by the time he announced his candidacy to lead the Ontatio PCs in 2004, he had rethought the matter. “He expressed regret for accepting the police union’s endorsement in the mayoral race,” the Star‘s Robert Benzie wrote, quoting Tory: “‘I’m not afraid to stand here and say I learned from the experience of the controversy that was created when I simply accepted the endorsement of the Toronto Police Association.”
The resulting controversy about those TPA endorsements led the provincial Liberal government at the time, under Premier Dalton McGuinty and Community Safety Minister Monte Kwinter, to seek opinions on the Police Services Act that appears to forbid this. Kwinter said that police-union officials’ claims that they are somehow exempt from the Act were incorrect. But police-union officials said they had a democratic right to express their opinion, and invited the government to charge them with violating the Act so they could fight it to the Supreme Court.
What about the Police Services Act? The restrictions seem clear enough. Police officers may, as private citizens, engage in political activities like voting and supporting a political party, as long as they do no fundraising. And they may sometimes speak on issues, but with important conditions. They “may engage in”:
1. Expressing views on any issue not directly related to the police officer’s responsibilities as a police officer, as long as the police officer does not,
i. associate his or her position as a police officer with the views, or
ii. represent the views as those of a police force.
This is the important distinction that is lost when a police union offers an endorsement on behalf of its members: it’s specifically, directly associating those partisan political views with their jobs as a police officer. It seems clear cut.
The Toronto Police Force received two legal opinions in 2000, both of which apparently said the Act bars police unions from offering endorsements.
The Toronto Police Services Board thinks it is clear. As of 2004, they forbid the Toronto Police (including its union) from offering endorsements. Though then-police-union head Rick McIntosh warned that by taking that action the Board was “playing with a loaded gun,” the TPA has abided by the ruling since then.
As it should.
The arguments from police unions—arguments I’m suddenly hearing on Twitter from people who oppose Hudak, but ones that in the past have usually been offered by conservatives—that their members are citizens entitled to participate in democracy makes sense, to an extent. But the important point is that they may not use their position in order to do so.
There are some jobs—police officer, military officer, judge, elections official—in which the need for public trust in impartiality and political neutrality is too important to society to be compromised. Members of these professions may privately express opinions and engage in partisan politics, but only as long as in doing so they do not create the appearance of a conflict of interest for the institutions they represent.
Here’s the thing: when police officers yell at us to “stop,” or flash their car-top red lights, or show up at our door to ask questions, we know that their voices carry behind them the full coercive capabilities of the state. They are a heavily armed paramilitary force with great power. Its members should be more aware than anyone of the responsibility to foster public trust in the institutions they serve that comes with that power. Too often, some members of police forces show us they do not recognize that responsibility. And the provincial police union has shown a disregard for it here.
PHOTOGRAPH: Ontario PC Leader Tim Hudak, left, and Ontario Liberal Leader Kathleen Wynne, right, attend the Ontario Police Memorial Foundation’s Ceremony of Remembrance at Queen’s Park in Toronto on Sunday, May 4, 2014. (Darren Calabrese/The Canadian Press.)