If you follow politics, you?ve heard someone say ? likely before committing some act of calculated mediocrity ? ?Politics is the art of the possible.?
It may be more truly the art of the visible. A frequent concern at police services board meetings is the public view of policing -- the "perception" that the complaints system is a sham, that policing is racialized and that cops don't take sexual assault seriously.
"Justice must not only be done, it must be seen to be done' is oft-repeated in police board circles, the logic being that if people don't trust the police, it doesn't matter whether or not they're corrupt.
True perhaps - but it's not always clear when the board is providing civilian oversight and when it's working public relations for a golden-boy chief.
As chiefs go, the board snagged itself a good one in Bill Blair - winning smile, socially responsible rhetoric. But after three minutes of conversing with former police board member Susan Eng, I remember what's missing.
"Civilian oversight exists solely to be a check and balance against unrestrained police power," she says. "It's about civilian control of a paramilitary force."
It's that sort of rhetoric that allegedly got Eng on the wrong end of a surveillance operation 15 years ago when she was board chair. Then, relations between cops and marginalized communities could be characterized as warfare: black youths frequently shot, queer activists treated like terrorists, Jane Doe used as bait to catch a serial rapist.
Little, perhaps, has changed, but at least it's acceptable to address such things, and the board doesn't face a war of attrition every time it tries.
Early this year, CBC reporter Dave Seglins showed Eng leaked intelligence documents dating back to her tenure relating to surveillance of a close friend and legal confidant. She knew he had been wiretapped; what she didn't know is that most surveillance pertained to her, or that the file included a restaurant conversation an officer just (oops!) happened to overhear.
Eng pressed the board to investigate the surveillance, institute policies to prevent such things and find the leak. At the November 15 meeting, board chair Alok Mukherjee said the board could not locate the leak and is satisfied that Eng was "never the subject of a judicial authorization" for a wiretap.
True. Nor was she targeted by the drug squad, the sex crimes unit or the whimsical tracking ferret (WTF) unit, which, god willing, is only something I just made up now. The concern is that high-ranking officers were willing to use the law to get around the law and tail their own civilian employer.
No, Eng wasn't the subject of a judicially authorized wiretap - but nonetheless her conversations with her friend were surveilled. And there was a strong possibility this was deliberate.
"There was no legal wiretapping on Ms. Eng," reiterates vice-chair and councillor Pam McConnell. Is she just being clear or sending a signal? "We know it happened, but they've got guns under the table. Send help." Or are board members just circling the wagons?
Neither, apparently. McConnell has concerns, but doesn't share Eng's. I catch up with her during a break in council. "I have no idea what Susan thinks or doesn't think. When she came to the board, her concern was that this document had been leaked, and she asked us to look into it," she tells me. (In a previous letter to the board, Eng calls for an inquiry into the surveillance, and for new guidelines.)
"We were unable to trace who it had been leaked by," says McConnell. "That's a very serious issue that people seem to have forgotten." Why? "We want to know who trades in secrets," she says firmly. " We've had other chairs of boards, where documents have been leaked to intimidate them.'
She refers here to Alan Heisey, who championed a separate, civilian-led complaints process - and who an officer also just (oops!) happened to overhear in conversation at a party.
So while the current board says that the matter of Eng is an old one, it has a similar case in its own history motivating it to find the leak. Ultimately, though, board members seem to think the leak's just another proverbial "bad apple," and academic in the end, since, as Mukherjee takes pains to point out, the board currently enjoys a "good relationship" with the chief.
And that's expected to exist forever, amen? "It's not about the personalities, it's about whether or not the system can prevent these things from happening," says Eng, adding that she's heard that even today, board chairs still have their offices swept for bugs. "I never did that. I said that if I caught you I'd nail you to the wall. There needs to be a deterrent."
Eng doesn't feel the board's response bodes well. "We faced down a lot of pressure making [the board] a body of public trust, and it's frustrating having that erode over the years."
Board member Hamlin Grange warns his colleagues, "If the public thinks we can be intimidated in our work, that doesn't serve a public purpose." If people think it, they perceive it. But how are we supposed to characterize the board's measured response - in light of the board's "relationship" with the chief?
Doesn't the threat, even imagined, of the loss of that relationship sound like intimidation, just as surely as an officer's displayed sidearm is a display of force, drawn or not? The implication of a threat may as well be the threat itself. Who needs explicit control, when implicit control is easier --and can be made to look like self-control?
And so we have intimidation that isn't intimidation upon a public oversight board charged with public oversight that isn't always exactly public oversight. You could power a small cannery with the electricity generated by postmodern philosophers analyzing this one.
At the meeting, each board member reiterates his or her political fortitude. "I can't be intimidated," states Grange.
Perhaps they won't be, particularly if they don't make much noise. But maybe that's just my perception.