OUAGADOUGOU, Burkina Faso
The thin blue line was traditionally meant as a supportive rallying cry for the police. It signified the line between order and chaos.
But in its modern incarnation, it has evolved in the minds of many in the police and the outside world to mean a class struggle between under-siege police officers who feel persecuted, misunderstood and generally beleaguered, and the rest of us. Whether it’s in labour negotiations, seeing their carding powers reduced or facing the dreaded Special Investigations Unit, the thin blue line means solidary against that dark world looming outside the comfort of the police station.
News yesterday that Ottawa police officers were selling black-and-blue wristbands inscribed with Cst. Dan Montsion’s badge number #1998 along with the statement “United we stand” is deeply troubling. Cst. Montsion was recently charged by the SIU with a handful of criminal offences, included attempted murder, in the recent death of Abdirahman Abdi. The bracelets are being sold for $2 with proceeds going to the police union’s benevolent fund.
Understandably so, community groups are in an upheaval, strongly attacking the move as an insult to the community. The police union supports the wearing of the bracelet off-duty. A senior officer, Insp. Pat Flanigan, defended the bracelet: “(this) is not about interfering with the judicial process. It’s about providing support to one of our member.”
Let’s take the human emotions out of the equation for a moment and look at the legal impact of the police wearing this bracelet, even off-duty. Criminal charges have been laid against Cst. Montsion and there are witness officers to the incident. The prosecution may call these officers to trial. If they happen to have witnessed something not favourable to Cst. Montsion, does the thin blue line and “United we stand” kick-in with a message to them not to “rat out” a fellow officer charged with attempted murder?
During SIU trials, cops typically show-up in droves to the courtroom to watch the trial and show their “support” for a fellow officer. Will they be wearing the bracelet to remind brother and sister officers testifying about the need to stand united?
The police often forget that they are public servants. You work for us. Sure esprit de corps and support among your officers and rank are key to efficiency and cohesion. But the only way the police-society rapport will work is, to borrow from Sir Robert Peel, the original founder of modern policing, “the police are the public and the public are the police.” There’s no room for division.
Some disgruntled cops accused police chief Charles Bordeleau, who issued an edict against wearing the bracelet while on duty, of a double standard for wearing a rainbow wristband during the Ottawa Pride Parade. It’s a ridiculous comparison. The thin blue line band spreads division, an “us vs them” mentality, while the rainbow wristband signifies inclusion and harmony between society and the LGBT community.
It’s refreshing to see Ottawa Police Board Chair Coun. Eli- El-Chantiry finally do his job of defending the public interest. He decried the bracelet as “distasteful” and a setback in rebuilding community connections following the Abdi incident. Similarly, Bordeleau was right to issue a stern warning to his cops about the “community perceptions of actions like these wristbands.”
I’ve spoken to many cops about Cst. Montsion. They have genuinely expressed shock at the charges. They spoke highly of him. If they want to show support, send him an email, text him, or give him a hug, but don’t take part in a crass campaign that risks interfering with the administration of justice and tearing communities apart.