The Police Aren't Always Right
by Lorne Gunter


Original Article

One of the most frequently heard arguments in the past two weeks from supporters of the gun registry eager to salvage the federal firearms database is: If police chiefs and police associations support the registry, why don't law-and-order conservatives? The simple answer is, the police aren't always right. Their instincts aren't always pro-freedom.

Don't misunderstand me; I'm very supportive of police, especially frontline officers. But I am mostly supportive of them in their duties - for the risks they take and the abuse they endure on my behalf and yours. Few of us would choose to put up with the assaults, the invectives, the danger and the uncertainty that police officers encounter daily. The stress ruins families.

I find myself less supportive of the police's policy recommendations, though - especially those emanating for official police organizations such as the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police and the Canadian Police Association. A chief, especially a big-city one, is frequently more politician than peace officer. One does not get appointed to a command position by the council of a large city with knowing how to play the game, which apples to polish and what buttons to push.

Then there is the whole evolution of police officers from working-class stiffs to college- and university-educated quasi-professionals. Practical smarts have too often given way to theoretical intelligence. Criminology classes are now given almost as much weight as street experience.

But to those pro-registry types trumpeting police support of their pet project, here's a question in return: When are you going to take police backing of other law-and-order initiatives as a signal that you should support those suggestions, too?

Police, for instance, were also in favour of the Tories' dangerous offenders law three years ago. They supported the government's efforts to indefinitely imprison any person convicted of a third violent crime. Many of the same supporters who are now touting police backing for the registry were aghast at the so-called "three-strikes" law. So what's different now? How come they think police organizations are so much smarter about the registry?

Tell you what, if those commentators will switch their position on three-strikes based on police say-so, I'll reconsider my opposition to the registry.

At least one police organization has advocated the use of drug-sniffing dogs in high school hallways, not once-in-a-while, but routinely. They have claimed it would be an effective way of reducing teen drug dependence. And perhaps it would be, but it would also amount to using a baseball bat to kill a fly.

Police have asked that it be made easier for them to listen in on people's telephone calls or peer into private e-mails. They believe those changes would make it easier for them to catch bad guys. And they probably would, but they would also be horrible intrusions on personal privacy - intrusions whose cost far outweighs the crime-reduction benefit.

Mandatory finger-printing has also been advocated by police, as has the placement of surveillance cameras on every corner, bus and subway car. That doesn't make those ideas right.

If some police had their way, every driver would have to blow into a breathalyzer attached to his ignition before his car would start and officers could search homes and cars without a warrant on the thinnest suspicion there were drugs inside.

Where are all the pro-registry types lining up to support police positions on these other initiatives?

Despite claims that officers use the gun registry's computers thousands of times each day to check whether guns are present in the homes they are about to call on, the vast majority of these "hits" are automatic. They are generated by a local police computer whenever an address is typed into the
dashboard terminal in a police cruiser or when the licence plate of a parking violator or the name of a jaywalker is called up.

According to the latest RCMP statistics, on an average day, only a few dozen police requests are made directly to the registry computers by officers curious about the registration status of a particular owner or gun. No officer truly concerned for his safety or that of his colleagues would assume the registry could tell him without fail whether a house or building he was about to enter contained firearms.

If police won all the debates about freedom vs. safety, we might well be safer. But it we listened only to police, we would be less free, too.

National Post