Retired Winnipeg police officer Stan Tataryn recently filed a petition with the House of Commons that seeks to have police recognized as a group protected from hate speech. On April 15, a story about Tataryn’s petition was featured on the front page of the Winnipeg Free Press.
The petition needs 500 signatures by June 8 to be presented in Parliament, and it has gained nearly half the necessary endorsements across eight provinces in just under a week (it’s even supported by Liberal Winnipeg North MP Kevin Lamoureux).
In his endorsement of the petition, Lamoureux suggests, “there’s a great deal of merit for us to give more positive attention to law enforcement officers.” This is puzzling given that police officers continue to remain arguably among the most celebrated public sector employees across Canada.
What’s more, as an institution, policing already enjoys heaps of positive attention from politicians and the mainstream press.
Police are regularly lauded for their service. In the unfortunate circumstance when an officer dies in the line of duty flags are lowered to half-mast, city streets and highways are closed for extensive funeral processions, and even CF-18 military fighter jets have been deployed for ceremonial flyovers.
There are also “Celebrate Police Week” and “Peace Officers Memorial Day” events (which includes a service on Parliament Hill) each year to recognize and honour law enforcement.
One would be hard pressed to find similar recognition for members of any other organization, short of say the Canadian military. Imagine if you can a military flyover for a deceased high school teacher or sanitation worker.
Nevertheless, in support of his petition, Tataryn suggests that police “moral authority” has been “undermined.” Principally for this reason, he argues, officers will “go quicker to their weapon, or toward force,” during encounters with citizens.
Rather, much to the contrary, this is precisely how police officers have always asserted their moral authority in encounters with citizens—often persons who are poor or unemployed and disproportionally people of colour.
According to organization studies scholar John Van Maanen, patrol officer-to-citizen exchanges represent “moral contests,” which seek to, on the one hand, uphold the authority of the state, and on the other, affirm an officer’s personal moral authority.
As Van Maanen explained more than 40 years ago in his seminal research paper on police street interactions with citizens, when an officer’s authority is directly challenged it incites the moral indignation of an individual officer in which a self-righteous remedy such as violence is used in response to a provocation, as clearly acknowledged by Tataryn.
What this all suggests is a highly personalized view of police work that is unrelated to its occupational mandate which is the efficient and professional enforcement of the law, not the administration of an officer’s personal outrage in the form of violence.
Criminalizing public criticisms of police conduct through hate speech legislation will do nothing to curtail police violence that results from interactions with citizens that do not go according to an officer’s personal wishes. In fact, a real irony is that it may increase situations for violence to occur in response to the enforcement of protest actions designated as “hate speech.”
Suggesting that police should be protected from legitimate protest speech that Tataryn and others want to label as “hate speech”—because, as he suggests, such speech could increase police violence enacted upon people of colour—is a bunch of malarky.
Proper respect is earned, not given or forced. Increased police force whether through the use of violence in response to protest speech, as a result of perceived disrespectful encounters with citizens, or labeling public criticism of police actions that result in death as “hate speech” will never bring any moral authority or more respect to police. Indeed, it will surely do just the opposite.
Christopher J. Schneider is professor of sociology at Brandon University and author of Policing and Social Media: Social Control in an Era of New Media.