Who gets to call themselves police — and why should you care?

ANALYSIS: The Progressive Conservatives have passed a bill that would require special constables — at universities, on public transit, and elsewhere — to stop calling themselves police. We look at the debate over Bill 68
By Matt Gurney - Published on Aug 07, 2019
A University of Toronto campus police car
The University of Toronto has applied for an exemption to Bill 68 that would allow the school’s 115-year-old police service to retain its current branding.

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One of my favourite parts of being a columnist is that, even when I’m reporting on something, I’m still allowed to insert my own perspective. Reporters can’t do that. I can. But today, I’m writing something that isn’t exactly an opinion column or a reported piece: it’s simply an article intended to bring to your attention an issue that you should know about. I don’t know enough about it myself to have formed an opinion, but it’s something I’m going to keep my eye on. We all should.

Doug Ford’s provincial government recently passed a piece of legislation, Bill 68, that affects usage of the term “police.” In Ontario, there are various types of so-called peace officers — public servants tasked with enforcing the law. Obviously, this term encompasses our police services: the Ontario Provincial Police, the Toronto Police Service, and all the others. It also encompasses a large number of law-enforcing public servants who are not exactly police officers. Think transit officers, campus police forces at big universities, and housing police at certain large public-housing developments.

In general (and there are exceptions), these officers do not carry firearms. They have the legal right to make arrests, and they are tasked with conducting investigations. But their duties are limited to very specific areas. Those areas can be defined by geography or by specialty. Peace officers of this sort handle tasks that don’t require the involvement of armed police.

Their employers tend to refer to themselves as police agencies. And the officers refer to themselves as police officers. Under Bill 68, which has been passed but not yet enacted, this will no longer be allowed.

This has proved controversial. Some of the arguments against the new rules aren’t rooted in the heart of the issue, which ought to be what our society considers the role of a police officer to be. Instead, they’re far more pragmatic: What will it cost all these agencies to rebrand? Will it confuse the public? Does the public, generally speaking, actually appreciate the distinct meanings of all the various terms we use to describe peace officers?

Sarah Kennedy, vice-president of the Ontario Special Constable Association, which represents about 280 of the province’s 3,000 special constables, tells TVO.org in an interview that her organization recommended to the government that special constables be referred to as peace officers and that organizations that already have “police” in their name be allowed to keep it. The government disagreed with both suggestions.

Kennedy says that withdrawing the term “police” now will only confuse the public, adding that, after almost a decade working as a special constable, she still often finds herself having to explain to people what her job is — and that, yes, she does have the power to ask for identification or make an arrest. She says there is an opportunity here to standardize training, terminology, and uniforms for special constables across the province, as well as to educate the public about the work they do.

“We have specialized roles and specialized duties to serve the needs of our specific communities,” she says. “This leaves the police free to handle larger issues in the greater community,” she adds — especially those that pose direct and imminent threats to public safety. Kennedy notes that special constables always operate under the direct command and supervision of their local police force and are regulated under the Policing Act. “We are working well with our police partners. And we want to continue to do so.”

But there is another side to this issue. Police agencies have long been wary of anyone using — or misusing, as they might put it — the title of police officer. Police officers have a very specific job in our society and are given very specific responsibilities and tools (legislative and otherwise) to carry it out. Any ambiguity over who is and is not a police officer, they argue, is not a good thing. That is what Bill 68 seeks to address, and it’s worth noting that it’s also something the provincial Liberals under Dalton McGuinty took some action on (though no legislation was ultimately passed).

Again, I don’t take a position on this — I just find it interesting. I absolutely agree with Kennedy that public literacy about the role of special constables is low, and it’s an advantage for them if the public assumes that they’re police and acts accordingly. I also agree with police officers who contend that their job is specialized and should be treated as such, from terminology on down.

It’s worth watching this debate as it continues to unfold. As a society, we’ve begun to argue over the militarization of police in North America — the adoption of weapons, tactics, and even uniforms that make officers seem more like soldiers than like neighbourhood cops on patrol. The current debate exists on the other side of the policing spectrum. Knowing who is a soldier, who is a police officer, and who (not to mention what) is a special constable shouldn’t be as hard as we’ve made it. But here we are. Stay tuned.

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