Activists in North America have worked tirelessly in recent years to raise awareness about the inequities of policing and the dangers they can pose to minority communities. But the most effective advocate for the so-called “defund the police” movement is the police themselves.
The latest example of that comes from Calgary, where the local police department is defying an order requiring them to remove the controversial “thin blue line” patches from their uniforms.
The patches, according to the police, are a visible sign of solidarity with each other and an acknowledgment of the dangers their work involves. But to people from minority communities, who have borne the overwhelming brunt of acts of police violence, the symbol is seen in a much less charitable light. That’s because it’s become associated with white supremacy and incidents like the murder of Eric Garner and George Floyd by police in the United States.
"I think it's one of those situations where the community, you know, is pretty solid in their opinion of what this symbolizes," said Jon Cornish, president of the Calgary Black Chambers. "[They] really want this one thing gone."
In most lines of work, disobeying your employer in such a blatant and public way would be grounds for termination. As law-abiding citizens, we don’t have the option of refusing to comply with orders given by our police officers. But after Calgary’s Police Commission handed down a directive requiring officers to remove the patches from their uniforms, the police essentially told their bosses — that is, the public — to pound sand.
Other forces, including the RCMP and the Toronto police, have asked their officers to remove it from their uniforms. Calgary’s Police Commission conducted a year-long consultation with members of the policing community and the public they serve and concluded with the directive to remove the patch and find a new symbol to replace it.
“People in our community have clearly expressed that the thin blue line patch on police officers makes them uncomfortable due to its history and current use by groups opposing racial equity,” commission chair Shawn Cornett said in a statement. “As policing evolves, so must its symbols.”
But Calgary’s police officers seem more interested in fighting than evolving, and they’re taking that fight to dangerous places. In a Tuesday press conference, police Chief Mark Neufeld told reporters his members were actively monitoring the online communications of commission members. “The quantity of anti-police content that’s being posted, shared or liked is really causing concern to the members,” he said.
This is, to be clear, none of their business, and certainly nothing they should be paying this sort of attention to. They’ve been given a directive by their employer, and they now have a choice: comply or resign. Section 31(2) of the Police Act is unequivocal: “Every police officer a) is, after the establishment of a commission, subject to the jurisdiction of the commission, and b) shall obey the directions of the commission.” Police officers are sworn to uphold all of the laws, not just the ones they believe in.
Stalling for time is a tactic meant to increase pressure on the commissioners, all of whom are volunteers and some from the very minority communities most adversely affected here. The city and its elected officials cannot allow this sort of insubordination to stand, nor can it permit its police commission to be intimidated or attacked. As local criminal lawyer Michael Bates told the Calgary Police Commission on Wednesday, “Calgary Police Service and its members and association representatives are not above the law. Full stop.”
Opinion: In most lines of work, disobeying your employer in such a blatant and public way would be grounds for termination, writes columnist @maxfawcett. #Police #CalgaryPolice #ThinBlueLine
One way or another, this situation will eventually be resolved. Maybe the police department’s leadership can get it together and convince members to follow their orders. Maybe the city will be able to broker some sort of compromise position in which one patch is traded for another. For example, if they refuse to take off the thin blue line patch without a fight, they could be asked to wear a “Black Lives Matter” one right next to it instead. Saying no to that would be a pretty obvious tell, after all.
But no matter how this plays out, it’s yet another reminder that we need to ask some hard questions about the role police play in our society and the way in which we fund them.
If they’re willing to disobey orders over something like this, which other orders and directives aren’t they following? And if they’re only prepared to do their jobs on their own terms, isn’t it time we looked for people who will do them on ours?
If nothing else, Calgary’s police have told us where their loyalties lie — and where they don’t.