For some observers, last week's conviction of a Toronto police officer on a charge of attempted murder strengthened the general sentiment that police have broken trust with the public. Added to the continent-wide surge in cellphone video of police brutality, Constable James Forcillo's guilty verdict feels like more evidence that the people sworn to protect us are not always upholding that oath.
It should be taken another way, though. The decision to press charges against Const. Forcillo and his subsequent trial are demonstrations of legal accountability, of a kind needed to restore public trust. If the police and governments follow up with a few much-needed measures, the questionable death of Sammy Yatim at the hands of Const. Forcillo might prove to be a turning point.
The most pressing issue is the need to amend Ontario's Police Act to give chiefs the discretion to suspend officers without pay. Under the current law, an officer charged with an offence, or even convicted but not sentenced to prison, can be suspended but gets to keep his or her income. Police chiefs have no say in the matter, and have been clamouring for one for years.
Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne says her government will change the law. That's good, because it's this sort of special treatment that erodes public faith in the police. While Ms. Wynne is at it, her government should also make it easier for police departments to fire rogue officers, and perhaps even make it a requirement when an officer has been convicted of a violent crime. There are officers in Ontario and across Canada who have been convicted of various degrees of assault and are still on duty. It's absurd.
Another critical issue is body cameras – devices worn by officers that record their actions and words. The Toronto Police Service has a pilot project to test them and will decide this year whether to expand their use. Other cities have ongoing pilot projects or are considering them. In Calgary, all front-line officers will be wearing cameras by early 2017. Calgary is on the right track. The knowledge that an interaction is being recorded is reassuring to both police and citizens, and provides accountability for all.
Accountability is everything when it comes to the police. With police-community relations at a low ebb, this is the time to start repairing the damage.