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Politicized B.C. police unions 'quite problematic' for democracy, experts warn

Criminology and political science professors explain why police endorsements of candidates is an "an uncomfortable place to be."
These four union leaders of police groups operating in B.C. have stepped up political activity and that brings warnings for our democratic institutions. Clockwise from top left: Ralph Kaisers, Vancouver Police Union; Brian Sauve, National Police Federation; Tom Stamatakis Jr.; Victoria City Police Union; and Rick Stewart, Surrey Police Union.

Police groups in B.C. have stepped up engagement in municipal politics amid a perceived threat to their profession; however, they do so at the peril of democratic values, experts say.

“The politicization of police in Canada is highly problematic, in my view,” says Robert Gordon, professor of criminology at Simon Fraser University.

Public debate on policing has roiled over the past four-year municipal term; whereas some defend the police as an institution, calling for its expansion, others call for its “defunding” ahead of Saturday’s provincewide civic elections.

Simon Fraser University political scientist Stewart Prest says the recent uptick in engagement by the police associations and unions ahead of the elections is a “fight or flight” response to maintain the institution’s status quo standing in society.

“We have essentially one segment of the population that has really lost faith in policing as a response to the kinds of challenges that they're facing. And so that's where we get calls to defund the police and to really try to transform the way in which policing is undertaken in our communities,” said Prest.

Prest notes various “enduring problems” have fuelled this politicization, such as criticism of police oversight related to police-involved violent incidents and resource allocation for police faced with roles outside their core skills, including health checks, drug overdoses and handling repeat offenders.

“Police play this crucial role in our political system, but it's not always clear just how transparent and how effective the mechanisms we have put in place are for regulating police activities,” said Prest.

However, while police play a role in the political system, they are expected to be non-partisan, no matter how the political winds shift, said Prest, adding while it is not an exact parallel, the same principle applies to the military and its members.

“Police are responsible for enforcing the decisions of civilian policymakers. And when they are getting involved in these political conversations, that's where we get into this uncomfortable territory where they seem to be choosing sides; and that can erode the trust in the police force,” said Prest.

Vancouver Police Union endorses politicians

An example of a police group in B.C. overstepping its traditional non-partisan role is the endorsement by the Vancouver Police Union of the ABC slate, which has focused its platform on street crime and hiring 100 new officers.

“It creates at least the impression or perception among many that the police would favour one political outcome over another and the police have a really unique role in our democratic system of government; they are responsible for enforcing the state's monopoly on the use of force, the use of violence, in our society and that's a big deal,” explained Prest.

Such endorsement “is something to be very concerned about” and is “quite problematic,” he added.

The union also held a hand-picked council candidates meeting — a matter that “astonished” Gordon.

“I think that is absolutely outrageous. They're undermining the whole idea of the separation of law enforcement from politics. The minute those two things come close to being together, we are in trouble, because the police can easily become the handmaidens of politicians who they have supported, and have been successful,” said Gordon.

Protesting that meeting was Vancouver council candidate Sean Orr of the Vote Socialist slate.

Orr was not invited to participate and after appearing with a ‘Police out of Politics’ banner, Orr was escorted from the event by union president Ralph Kaisers, who did not respond to Glacier Media’s interview request.

Orr says police and their supporters are pushing a “dangerous narrative” that crime is out of control in Vancouver, when, in fact, it has decreased since the pandemic and is in long-term decline.

“We need alternatives to this kind of rhetoric. We need to lift everyone up, we need to raise up the community. We need to find alternatives to policing and find mental health services and peer support services,” said Orr.

The restaurant worker, musician and social activist wants the police budget cut by at least 50 per cent over an undetermined period of time. Diverted money, says Orr, should be re-invested in holistic, social solutions that can reduce crime both immediately and in the long term, such as: more public housing, trauma-informed services for marginalized people, eliminating bylaws that target homeless people, building public storage facilities in low-income areas, prohibiting arrests for small amounts of drugs and a public-funded safe drug supply.

Orr also calls for institutional reforms such as: elected police boards, disarming police officers and eliminating civil forfeitures.

These matters, he says, are for civil society to flesh out in public debates; Orr says police are “not technically part of civil society,” rather they are part of the judicial branch.

“My issue is that the armed branch of the judiciary should not be interfering with the executive branch,” he said.

Gordon said another matter is the union taking sides for and against elected officials who dispense their salaries. He said other unions connected to city halls, such as firefighters, should also stay clear of the electoral process.

Victoria and Surrey see politicization as well

Elsewhere in B.C., police unions have become more involved in political discourse, although not to the extent of an explicit official endorsement.

Victoria City Police Union executive board member Tom Stamatakis Jr. has been openly critical of city councillor Ben Isitt who has called for defunding the police.

The union runs a podcast called the True Blue Podcast and last April Stamatakis Jr. said the group was “at a pivotal road that we need to take to get our messaging out.”

Stamatakis Jr. called Isitt “unprofessional” for his views on policing. He suggested it was unrealistic to cut police budgets so drastically while still cracking down on crime and said members don’t feel supported when criticized by elected officials.

Stamatakis Jr. declined an interview with Glacier Media.

In Surrey, the policing debates have not been about police department funding versus funding alternative crime reduction methods for society, but rather what police force is used.

In November 2018, the City of Surrey embarked on transitioning from the Surrey RCMP to the now semi-established Surrey Police Service. The transition has since split council on matters such as transparency and cost overruns.

The Surrey Police Union has called mayoral candidate and sitting councillor Brenda Locke a liar for posting what it says are erroneous, if not overstated, cost saving estimates should the city reverse course on the transition, as she has suggested she will do, if elected with a majority. The union has also engaged in arguments online with council candidates for Locke’s Surrey Connect.

The union’s president Rick Stewart declined to be interviewed.

Meanwhile, the National Police Federation, representing the Surrey RCMP members, freely admits to lobbying to maintain the force, despite the will of the council majority.

Federation president Brian Sauve even led the overwhelming funding (over $100,000) of a referendum initiative to halt the transition.

Sauve says the federation is “politically active” but hasn’t endorsed any politician. It says it has not donated to any slate.

Prest said, “while it's worth hearing from police forces on issues of policing, it gets uncomfortable when police are telling civilian politicians or taking sides in terms of who should be enacting civilian oversight of the police,” as well as what a department’s capacity or size should be.

“That's an uncomfortable place to be,” said Prest.

Gordon says the federation “flexing its muscles” and the union calling out political opponents of the transition is troubling.

The federation, said Gordon, was “actively involved in discrediting [Mayor Doug McCallum’s] ideas and discrediting the notion of a Surrey police service.

“Quite apart from the merits of [the transition], it's the process that's troubling for me. And the precedent that's been set is absolutely dreadful. It's cut to the heart of the impartiality and political independence of policing in this province, and we're going to reap the harvest of this one for some time,” said Gordon.

Glacier Media asked Prest, given the unravelling situation at hand, are police simply supposed to take it in the teeth, so to speak, when faced with the politics of police reform and even defunding?

“At a certain point the answer actually has to be, ‘Yes,’” he said.

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