© 2001  Karen Selick
What Should Our Cops Be Doing?

An edited version of this article first appeared in the July, 2001 issue of Canadian Lawyer.  If you wish to reproduce this article, click here for copyright info.


What Should Our Cops Be Doing?

Ask most people whose house has ever been broken into and they’ll tell you that the call to the insurance company was the only one worth making.  The call to the police may bring an officer around to take a report, but it rarely brings the satisfaction of getting your property back, or getting compensation for any vandalism, or seeing the criminals go to jail. 
In fact, a Toronto lawyer recently told me that he had arrived at work one day to find two bullet holes in the glass door to his office.  He called the police, but was told that they would not even be bothered sending an officer to investigate.  This sort of thing "happens all the time," the officer said on the phone.

Another friend recently told me he’d been the victim of identity theft, probably an inside job by someone working at his bank.  Among other things, there was a fraudulent withdrawal of $16,000 from his line of credit.  When he called the police, he was told they don’t investigate frauds against individuals if they’re under $250,000.  For businesses, they won’t investigate anything under $1 million.

These troubling anecdotes are corroborated by statistical evidence.  A 1997 study by Statistics Canada revealed that only 24 percent of property crimes are ever cleared by police.  For breaking and entering, the rate is only 15 percent. 

These numbers raise a chicken-and-egg problem.   Is it because these crimes are by their nature so resistant to resolution by police that cops become uninterested in even trying?  Or do the police actually start out uninterested in this kind of crime, with ineffectualness as the result?

Regardless of which causes which, citizens faced with this kind of police unresponsiveness are turning in droves to other means of protecting themselves.  Sales of home security systems have skyrocketed.  Gated communities with private security guards, long common in the U.S., are gaining a foothold in Canada.  Retailers are installing surveillance cameras everywhere.  Banks are exploring a variety of ways to prevent credit card fraud--from fingerprint identification to retinal scans.  

In other words, the field of crime prevention—once considered an undisputed function of government—is steadily, quietly, without any fanfare, being taken over by the private sector.  

Meanwhile, how are tax-funded police officers going to be spending their time?  We got a hint in a recent headline from The Globe and Mail:  "54 people charged in betting crackdown."  

We got another hint in the Ontario Court of Appeal decision R. v. J.S. [2001] O.J. No. 104. A pair of undercover policemen had attended a Marilyn Manson concert dressed like rock fans, in white face makeup and black wigs.  They cajoled and intimidated a 14-year-old boy into parting with $10 worth of marijuana—a third of the stash he intended to smoke himself that evening.  The court threw out the boy’s drug trafficking conviction due to police entrapment.  Meanwhile, not only had the police wasted a lot of manpower engineering this silly episode, but someone in the Crown’s office had also thought this boy’s dastardly deed worth throwing some prosecutorial resources at.  

As citizens increasingly find it necessary to take over the job of crime prevention in their homes and workplaces, the primary job that’s being left for government police is vice prevention.  Drugs, gambling, smuggling and prostitution will eventually become the raison d’etre of the boys in blue—if they aren’t already.    

What do these offences have in common? The participants on both sides of each deal are participating willingly, voluntarily.  Nobody considers himself to be a "victim" of the transaction.  The only person who objects is the state.

Police argue that these vices are being increasingly controlled by organized crime, leading ultimately to violence and murder.  Therefore, the logic goes, we must pursue petty vices in order to prevent deaths.  

But gangland turf wars occur only when we transform vices into crimes.  The prohibition-era liquor trade was steeped in violence too.  However, now that alcohol can be sold legally, Molson’s and Sleeman’s aren’t shooting it out in the streets.  Instead they’re respectable citizens, listed on the stock exchange.  Paradoxical as it may seem, it is the legalization of victimless crime, not the zealous prosecution of it, that prevents vice from escalating into genuine crime.  

But don’t tell that to the cops or the law-and-order politicians.  They demand ever-increasing funding, and ever-increasing powers, to deal with the problems they are actually helping to create.  They’re willing to risk transforming the country into a police state, apparently for our own good.  Have they never pondered the fact that urine tests conducted in prisons invariably show that even in those microcosms of the ultimate police state, there’s always a good percentage of the population that manages to get stoned?

Let’s hope taxpayers eventually start questioning why they should have to pay twice for the crime prevention they really want—once through their taxes to the ineffectual police department, and a second time to the company that monitors their home security service.  Maybe then they’ll start refusing to pay, both with their dollars and their liberties, for ventures that are beginning to look primarily like make-work projects for police.


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July 31, 2000