Public relations campaigns are great – so long as they improve relations with the public and don’t blow up in your face
By Ewart Walters
At its best, the Ottawa Police Association negotiates working conditions for its members in the Ottawa Police Service. At its best, it ignores the anti-citizen examples of other police organizations such as the New York Police Department, the Hull police, the Montreal Police and the Toronto police. At its best, it recognizes that a civil organization created to protect citizens under a set of rules and regulations created by those citizens and known as laws has no business flouting those rules and regulations.
At its best, it helps to promote and sustain the Rule of Law, which is the foundation of Western democracy and means that nobody is above the law.
At its worst, it ignores or goes far beyond these things.
Fortunately, it has a very high percentage of being at its best and only a small one of being at its worst. Regrettably, the latest gambit with a campaign to discredit the legal and jurisdictional processes by wearing wristbands in solidarity with an officer who is facing court on charges related to the death of Abdirahman Abdi, a Black man in police custody, is an outrageous and disgraceful step backward. (The Union claims it did not launch but supports it – when bracelets are worn on duty).
In the 1980s the NYPD launched a “PR campaign” to sell windshield stickers to motorists. In practice, this would mean that if an officer stopped you and saw the sticker on your car he would be lenient. It was quickly brought to an end.
In the 1980s, the Toronto police union severely harassed citizen activist Dudley Laws and filed a libel suit against him. At a time when police were shooting and killing several Black young men, Laws had launched the Black Action Defence Committee and commented that the Metropolitan Toronto Police Force was the most racist in the world. The case against Laws was quietly abandoned because after four or five years the police union suddenly “discovered” that he had no money to pay them in the event they won.
More to the point, their action came after a court ruling for the CBC in a libel case brought by veterans who were upset at a television documentary series, the Valour and the Horror, which aired on CBC in 1992. The court ruled in that instance that defamation is a personal matter and organizations and institutions cannot be defamed.
The Hull Police brought a defamation case in the 1990s against Black teenager Rolanda Coe who was demonstrating on Parliament Hill following an incident one night in which Hull police roughed her up (and dimmed her dream of becoming a police officer).
The Ottawa Police Union also brought a defamation suit against the former President of the National Council of Jamaicans and Supportive Organizations in Canada, Ralph Kirkland, who was President of the Jamaica Ottawa Community Association when he was accosted in a park by a police officer on the first night of Black History Month 1995, manhandled and thrown into jail for “failure to identify.” He was first released by the desk sergeant only to be charged a week later with “failure to identify” and be the subject of a $¾ million defamation suit because he said “most definitely” to a Citizen reporter’s question as to whether race was involved in the incident. Kirkland fought it and the case was settled out of court several years later.
Now, after a year (2016) spent on a campaign seeking to discredit their own Chief, members of the Ottawa police union have launched this new wristband campaign in so-called “solidarity” with a man who is before the court in a case prosecuted by the Crown. Doubtless we will also see several burly officers in intimidating attendance at his trial, as happened in the Vincent Gardner case against Constable John Monette in the early 90s. No doubt he will be whisked in and out of court by the back door as in that case as well.
But there is a line officers sworn to uphold the law should not cross, and in this case they are ignoring that line. Not to mention the fact that the wearing of wristbands is not part of their uniform and is therefore not permitted.
Ottawa media and the public at large, already upset by the death in police custody of Ottawa Somalian community member Abdirahman Abdi have labelled this campaign outrageous, intimidating and disgraceful. It certainly is not what Sir Robert Peel had in mind when he set out the Nine Principles of Policing.
And it is a big headache for Chief Bordeleau who is now being pressed to exert some needed discipline in the matter. Indeed, a Carleton University Law professor has called on the Premier to disband the Ottawa police and replace it with the OPP.
It probably will not come to that but, clearly, this kind of behaviour credits no one and creates a bad impression on the police force as a whole. Let’s get back to serving and protecting the citizens of Ottawa with the excellent and disciplined police Ottawa’s citizens deserve.
About the writer
Ewart Walters was the editor and publisher of the Spectrum newspaper. He is a recipient of the Order of Ottawa.