Truthfullness in Policing: An Issue of Public Trust

The citizens of Winnipeg expect police to be tough on crime but do they expect police to step beyond the bounds of the rules in order to do so?  Is it acceptable for the police to ‘fudge the truth’?  Do the ends justify the means if the cause is noble?

According to Boston Police Commissioner Edward Davis, “Cops have been getting a pass on lying for a long time”.  This has prompted Davis to introduce a policy that sees police officers in Boston fired if they lie in the course of their duties. 

In Canada the approach has been less direct.  Although the courts have been urging police agencies to use audio and video tape interactions with suspects for some years, the reasons given have always been couched in benevolent terms.  The courts have indicated that audio and videotaping would establish an accurate record of what transpired and add credibility to the evidence of police officers.  What judges have been loath to say is that they simply don’t believe the testimony of some police officers who appear before them. 

The term used by defence lawyers and enlightened police executives in the United States (and at least one in Canada) is ‘testilying’.  The term is commonly used by defence counsel in Winnipeg.  It has even been suggested that lawyers maintain an informal list of police officers whom they suspect of ‘testilying’.  They share this list with each other so they can properly prepare themselves when they will be cross-examining one of the listed officers.    

Lack of truthfulness by police officers manifests itself in different situations.  Some of the common ones include:

  • When testifying in court
  • When preparing official police reports
  • When documenting a case in the form of their original notes
  • When presenting information to obtain search warrants
  • When being interviewed by internal investigators

Lack of truthfulness by police is one of the first steps down the road of alienating the public from its police.  It the police cannot be trusted to be truthful and honest in all their dealings, public trust is eroded.  

Police in the United States are starting to come to grips with this issue. 

 At a recent Police Executive Research ForumTown Hall Meeting (Denver Colorado, October  4th 2009), in excess of twenty Chiefs of Police including Toronto Police Chief William Blair confronted head on the issue of police truthfulness.  

The discussion revealed that most police chiefs understand the seriousness of the issue and like Commissioner Davis in Boston are taking steps to address it.  Some of their comments underscore the seriousness of the issue from both a public and an organizational perspective. 

Pasadena Chief Bernard Melekian indicated “The Public no longer presumes that police tell the truth”.  * 

North Charleston Chief Jon Zumalt stated: ‘My fundamental filter for making decisions on this is that we’ve got to gain the trust of the people we serve”. * 

And it’s not just an American problem.  Toronto Chief William Blair said this: “We’ve had lots of situations where officers have lied, and it has cost us dearly.”  Blair took it one step further: “And it’s not just a question of lying; it’s also about failing to tell the truth.  What we find so often in cases where an officer or a group of officers are engaged in inappropriate or even illegal behaviour there is reluctance in our policing culture to report it.  People simply don’t tell.  They avoid it, they stay out of it, they don’t have the courage to step forward”.* 

If, as is so often the case, the first step in addressing an issue is recognition that the issue exists, then in the United States and at least one Canadian city we are heading in the right direction.  The problem has been recognized and is on the action agenda.  

Ethics can be taught in a classroom but it does not end there. Ethical behaviour must be practiced on the street and in the office of police executives.  It must be modeled by those in leadership positions.  It must be reinforced through discipline.  Enforcing discipline within police organizations requires commitment from the chief of police.  It requires that tough decisions be made about the future viability of police officers who have been untruthful  as well as  police officers who have been convicted of committing a crime.  

Police chiefs must recognize that they cannot be everyone’s ‘buddy’.  

The first step is recognizing that a problem exists.  In Winnipeg we may not be there quite yet.    

* Quoted from Subject to Debate, A newsletter of the Police Executive Research Forum, Vol.23. No. 10 (October 2009)

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Traffic Tag Quotas

By definition a quota refers to a portion or share that an individual, unit or division within an organization is required to contribute to the whole.  Quotas can be used to express both minimums and maximums. 

In terms of officers handing out traffic tickets, quotas refer to minimums, i.e. the minimum number of tickets that each officer is required to issue. 

One might ask why is it necessary for police agencies to impose quotas regarding traffic tickets.  Can we not expect officers to do their job which includes handing out traffic tickets? The issue is complex.  Some police officers see traffic enforcement as beneath them – they want to concentrate their time and effort on enforcing criminal law, not traffic offences and by-laws.    Some officers actually take the position that they ‘don’t do traffic’.  Police unions have traditionally opposed quotas on the grounds that it limits officer discretion.

The increase in fines has also contributed to the reluctance of some officers to issue tickets. They find it difficult to hand the average ‘working Joe’ a ticket, knowing the fine will be in the hundreds of dollars. 

Another factor that influences officers is their recognition that the issuing of traffic notices is as much about revenue as it is about road safety.   Many police officers resent being revenue generators. 

The recent attempt by the Winnipeg Police Service to impose traffic quotas was cloaked under the guise of overall officer performance, attempting to ensure that officers perform all aspects of their job.  The monitoring of officer performance in and of itself is a good strategy.  However, such a strategy will only succeed if the monitoring of traffic enforcement statistics is part of an overall performance monitoring strategy.  If traffic enforcement is the only statistic being measured while other aspects of their performance such as the numbers of arrests made are not, officers soon realize that it’s not about performance, it’s about revenue. 

As with many approaches timing is everything.  The Service’s recent foray into the traffic ticket quota minefield at a time when photo radar and traditional enforcement revenues are down and the Service is facing a budget shortfall might suggest that the need for additional revenue has trumped performance and road safety.    

Some police agencies that are serious about tracking performance have put in place statistical programs as part of their overall CAD and RMS system that automatically track and provide reports on officer’s performance at the individual, unit and divisional level.  Such programs incorporate traffic enforcement as part of what is being measured and make such measurement more palatable.  The reports generated by such systems serve as an important tool to evaluate and improve individual and collective performance.   

The recent push by the Winnipeg Police Service for more traffic tags is simply a knee jerk attempt to balance the budget.  The police executive needs to monitor spending more closely throughout the year so that this scenario can be avoided for 2010. 

The quota tactic may result in short term revenue increase but will it modify officer performance in the long term?  Will the Service demand ongoing compliance with ticket quotas in 2010 or will the introduction of a new budget make officer ‘performance’ in this area less crucial?

Who is Responsible for Policing in Winnipeg?

So who exactly is responsible for ensuring the safety of the citizens of Winnipeg?  Is it the Minister of Justice?  Partly.  Is it would-be-Premier Andrew Swan? *  Maybe, if he wins the leadership race.  Is it the Winnipeg Police Association?  They seem to think so.  

There is no shortage of people lining up with the ‘answer’ to gang violence in Winnipeg.   Yesterday the Province announced its long awaited gang strategy.  Other than perhaps the ‘awareness strategy for parents’, nothing much seems to have changed.  Please tell me there is more – there must be more, right?

All of this, however, begs that question “who is charged with the responsibility of law enforcement and crime prevention in Winnipeg?”  Who should be proposing cutting edge approaches to dealing with gang issues in Winnipeg?  Perhaps the Winnipeg Police Service? 

The Winnipeg Police Service was represented when the government made its gang strategy announcement.  Their role, however, was largely to serve as wallpaper at a provincial news conference.  This is a Winnipeg issue and it should be addressed by the Winnipeg Police Service. 

There is an old adage that says if you don’t know how to do your job someone will tell you how to do it, if you don’t do your job someone will do it for you.  We have some experience with that in Manitoba.  In the aftermath of the Taman Inquiry the East St. Paul Police Service was disbanded and replaced by the RCMP.  There is no fear of that happening to Winnipeg.  There are, however, other more subtle ways for the provincial government to exert its influence over municipal policing: the formulation of policing strategies for municipal police departments being one.

*  Andrew Swan has since withdrawn form the leadership race.