At the heart of the multi-volume report into Canada’s worst mass shooting lies a recommendation calling for governments to replace 19th-century principles about law enforcement with a revised notion of what police are for.
It imagines officers whose basic mission includes collaborating with other agencies, being democratically responsive to those they serve and building social cohesion.
And the mildly surprised academic whom these principles are drawn from — Prof. Ian Loader of the University of Oxford — says he would find it both pleasing and “a bit odd” if the call to adopt these ideas becomes a reality.
Loader’s vision, he said in an interview Thursday, is one where “everyday action and everyday speech (of police) makes people feel that they fully belong to a society and will be treated accordingly.”
The recommendation to adopt his ideas is one of 130 in the final report by commissioners who led the public inquiry into the April 18-19, 2020, killings of 22 people in Nova Scotia by a 51-year-old denturist driving a replica patrol car. Commissioners found deep failings in the RCMP response before, after and during the murders. From decisions against quickly issuing public alerts, to the disregarding of on-the-ground evidence provided by witnesses, the inquiry found the RCMP ill trained and equipped to deal with the crisis.
In the volume on policing, the commissioners say families and communities found that the aftermath of the mass shooting “caused them to question their former trust in the police,” and the report concluded the Mounties lack capacity to improve on and analyze their errors.
Loader, who has written on policing in western, liberal democracies for more than three decades — and contributed to expert panels during the Nova Scotia inquiry — said he sees a need to rethink the purpose of policing.
For decades, the 58-year-old British criminologist had noticed police citing “Peelian” principles — named after Sir Robert Peel, founder of the London Metropolitan Police in the 1800s. But Loader said the Victorian-age slogans evolved into ineffective clichés.
For instance, one Peelian principle states officers’ ability to do their duty depends on “public approval of their existence, actions and behaviour,” and their ability to secure and maintain public respect. In one of his papers, Loader wrote, “The superficially appealing notion that ‘the police are the public and that the public are the police’ means nothing and everything.”
That principle is of dubious value to marginalized groups who don’t feel they’re part of the mainstream, he said Thursday.
He also argues that policing principles must be clear enough that specific regulations, laws and policies can be built around them. The inquiry adopted six of the criminologist’s alternative principles, beginning with a statement that policing’s basic mission is to improve public safety.
However, from this premise, he swiftly follows with a call for that mission to occur “with the approval of and in collaboration with the public and other agencies.” In addition, principle 3 calls for police to carry out their task in ways that build “social cohesion and solidarity,” and principle 4 says police should be both answerable to law and “democratically responsive to the people they serve.”
These principles shift the notion of policing as the central clearing house for responding to crime toward one where officers may instead work with other agencies, from mental health services to women’s shelters, he said.
“I’ve come to think that any society that is serious about preventing and controlling crime would probably talk less about policing than it currently does.”
Loader gave the example of police officers having become the front-line responders to mental health crises. “Why have we organized our societies so that police of all agencies are the front-line agency for responding to people who have health issues?”
While Loader hesitated to flatly state whether his principles would have improved RCMP performance “on the day” of the killings, he added, “it might well have made a difference to how the police might have gone about trying to repair trust.”
In its findings on gender violence, the inquiry’s commissioners called for stable funding for women’s shelters and a declaration that violence is a public health pandemic that requires police to co-operate with other agencies.
Loader said that while responding to intimate partner violence has become a frequent part of what officers do, police cadets aren’t usually joining up with an understanding that the role will be central to their jobs.
He said he broadly favours the commission’s call for a phasing out of the 26-week RCMP training curriculum and its replacement with a three-year degree-based program, saying short-term education is “becoming kind of untenable.”
Loader said there are senior police leaders in western countries, including Canada, eager to embrace the principles, but he said he has little sense of whether — as the inquiry recommends — his ideas will be adopted “by all levels of government and Canadian police agencies.”
He does insist they not be turned into a memorized list. “You want to live and breathe them on a daily basis; you don’t want to stick them on a plaque in the foyer.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 13, 2023.