In a recent article by the Toronto Star, it was found that police are not only repeatedly violating the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, but they are not even being notified when courts throw out cases because of police violations of Charter rights—let alone facing consequences for them. They found an astounding 600 court rulings in the past decade in which police committed serious Charter violations. These, they clarify, are just the most visible cases.
One such violation happened in Calgary, where police officers smashed in the windows of Josh Saunders’ car only seconds after approaching him, then punched him in the face six times. Officers violated Saunders’ Charter rights a whopping seven times during this brief encounter. There are numerous examples of encounters even more violent and humiliating than this, spanning coast to coast. In Brantford, officers illegally detained and searched a suspect for drugs, just because he was cycling on the sidewalk without a light. In Toronto, police entered an unconscious stabbing victim’s hospital room without a warrant so they could seize as evidence the heroin that was being removed from their rectum. In Edmonton, police filmed partially-nude female prisoners while they used the washroom.
But in the vast majority of these 600 Charter violation cases, neither the police forces nor the offending officers themselves were notified that courts ruled against them. In fact, most provinces and territories don’t even have a system for dealing with officers who violate the Charter. Most police departments say that if one of their officers is found by the court to have violated the Charter, they trust the Crown Attorney will notify them, and then they will discipline or provide more training to the officer in question. But this rarely happens.
For example, the Toronto Star asked the Toronto Police Service about 94 cases where their officers seriously breached the Charter, and the police said they were unaware of all of them. Most other police forces refused to say whether they knew about the violations of their officers or not, indicating that they either had no clue about them or were aware of them but weren’t interested in being held accountable.
When officers are disciplined—or, when police forces say they’ve disciplined an officer—privacy laws make details extremely hard to get. In 2019, several Calgary officers arrested Latef Tag El-Din for violating house arrest. In the process they unleashed a police dog on him, who bit him several times. Four hours later, as blood seeped through his bandages and he pleaded for medical attention, officers continued to detain and interrogate him while they sang songs mocking his cries for help. The officers’ “utter indifference to the safety and well-being of the accused”, combined with the fact that one officer had already violated El-Din’s Charter rights in the past, led the judge to throw out El-Din’s case completely. Despite this damning ruling, the Calgary Police Service refused to say whether the officer who oversaw the arrest and mistreatment, Jennifer Doolan, faced any consequences at all.
All of this shows that the overwhelming majority of cops get off without even a slap on the wrist when they violate the rights they supposedly uphold. What is to be done about this? Legal scholars and judges who spoke to the Toronto Star say that we need a formal notification system to alert police forces when their officers are found to have violated the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. But this would not provide a real solution to the problem of unconstitutional and abusive policing. What would happen when police forces were alerted of their officers’ behaviour? In all likelihood, nothing. We know from mountains of past experience that in capitalist society, police are above the law. To give just one example, police misconduct in Alberta is handled by the Alberta Serious Incident Response Team (ASIRT). This body is composed entirely of cops. Since its formation in 2008, less than 45 officers have been charged. ASIRT has never charged an officer for killing someone—though Edmonton police have already killed 4 people in 2022 alone. We can’t trust the police to oversee the police, and a system notifying police forces that their officers have breached the constitution would be doing just that.
The job of the police is not to ensure our safety, but to ensure the safety of the status quo and of private property. This is a task that, by its nature, requires brutality and violence. In general, crimes are the result of the poverty, instability, and desperation bred by capitalism. Why would anyone steal or sell drugs if they had what they needed to live already? But rather than do anything to address social ills, which would require seizing wealth from greedy multi-billion-dollar corporations, the government prefers to suppress crime with police violence. Further, capitalists need the police to put down any actions like strikes or protests that threaten the status quo, with violence if necessary. This is why under capitalism, police must be above the law. If they are beholden to it, they can’t terrorize poor and working people with the force needed to protect the capitalist system. In reality, our capitalist “justice” system exists to protect the wealth of the ruling class. If police violate the law by brutalizing poor or desperate people, all is still well as far as capitalist justice is concerned.
When defence lawyer Tom Engel asked an Edmonton police official if he thought a notification system would be put in place to alert the police force of Charter violations, he said, “There is no policy, nor do I think one will be generated.” He is probably right. But even if such a policy were put in place, little would change. The police would continue to deem themselves innocent, and they would continue to do the dirty work of maintaining the capitalist status quo. After all, there is a reason that judges call the abuse of Charter rights a “systemic” problem. It is tied to the system of capitalism.
What’s needed is not a policy tweak here or there, which would be like a few drops of water in an ocean of innocent blood. The working class must fight for real solutions to the poverty and social inequality that creates crime, which means massive funding for housing, health care, and other social supports. That funding must be wrested from the multi-billion-dollar corporations that hoard most of society’s wealth, and no capitalist politician will ever do that for us. Therefore we must fight for the socialist transformation of society, and in the process, we must defend our own safety on our own terms. To cops under the capitalist system, our rights and freedoms are not worth more than the paper they’re written on.