I recently retired from a 45-year policing career—36 in the RCMP, followed by nine in the OPP. For over 30 of those years, I served “where the rubber meets the road.”

During my service I worked in numerous communities on a wide variety of investigations, and in my later years often found myself teaching at the RCMP basic training center in Regina Depot Division and at the Canadian Police College in Ottawa.

During one course, I was team-teaching with the late Dr. Bruce Sealy, a professor from the University of Manitoba. He asked a class of senior officers, “Do you feel police officers are professionals or technicians? Perhaps good technicians, but technicians, nonetheless?” The response was mixed but it was generally felt officers considered themselves professionals.

Then he asked, “What’s the difference?”

After hearing a variety of responses he said, “I have worked with police officers across Canada and some I feel were indeed professional, but the majority in my opinion are technicians, perhaps good technicians but technicians nonetheless.”

The difference: “A good technician knows how to use the training and the tools they’ve been given to get the job done. Like the computer repairman. Fix the computer to the satisfaction of the customer, then move on. On the other hand the professional, like a brain surgeon for example, has to consider the long-term impact of his/her immediate action.”

In many classes I often ask, “What was your feeling toward police officers before you joined: positive or negative?” Close to 90% will say, “positive”, otherwise they probably wouldn’t be there. When queried further as to why the positive feeling, one officer said, “When I was six years old a police officer simply helped me to my feet and dusted off my clothes after falling. I never forgot that.”

We so often under estimate the lasting effect of a kind word or deed.

When this is applied to everyday policing, it creates considerable food for thought. For example, if an officer is arresting the same people night after night, week after week, and they are constantly in and out of jail, someone may say, “Obviously what you’re doing isn’t working”—and a defensive response from the officer is probably, “I’m doing my job.”

During my nine years in the OPP I worked with numerous First Nations communities across Ontario, from large ones in the south to small fly-in communities in the north. At the political level you often hear, “Officers policing these communities should be of Aboriginal descent.” While speaking to numerous chiefs, council members and community people, however, that issue was seldom raised. What they wanted was quality, professional policing—Aboriginal officers or not.

In the early 90s, shortly after the Oka crisis, I was asked to address judges attending a Western Judicial Conference in Calgary. I said at the time there are approximately 57,000 police officers in Canada, and on a daily basis between 300,000 and 400,000 officer–violator contacts, ranging from arrests for criminal offences to warnings for minor traffic violations. From these come a small handful of complaints.

Many people around the world consider Canada as having the finest police in the world. But I question that. Do we have this reputation because we are so good? I don’t believe so. For example when Oka happened, it involved the tragic death of an officer and a 77-day standoff. We didn’t handle the situation any better than many of our counterparts handle similar situations in their countries. No, I believe Canadian police enjoy this reputation because of the kind of people who make up our society. They make us look good.

Although we’re not immune, we don’t have the same radical factions, active terrorist groups or criminal gangs in our country to anywhere near the same degree that exists in many others. Canadians want it to remain this way, and quality, professional policing can contribute greatly to ensuring it does.

Quality, professional policing is important since it is essential to a safe, secure and equitable society. But it is not enough, and it can, if solely pursued, lead to an alienated citizenry (especially among the marginal and vulnerable), a high level of expensive court processing, excessive criminalization and incarceration.

What has to accompany quality policing is a commitment to truly making it a common pursuit, engaging the communities, listening to their concerns and suggestions, and in that collaboration finding effective cost-efficient ways to get at root causes and to respond in an integrated way as possible to the crimes and conflicts that do occur.

The goal is to establish order, send out a clear message that property and personal victimization will not be tolerated, and then set to work going beyond arrests and charges in order to get at the root of what causes discord, violence and crime in general. Doing this, I truly believe, will result in less violence, less property crime and much partnership and joint ownership of policing.

Implementing this kind of thinking will lead to what many are calling Smart Justice. When it comes to policing, getting to Smart Justice won’t take time so much as it will take a change in mindset.

— Jim Potts