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Maybe police brutality IS standard operating procedure

I’ve been thinking more about the Roxanne Carr videos. About the way she was handled by the police in the cell block. The officers seemed so calm and methodical, as if they were just following proper procedure. They didn’t seem to be angry or out of control. Add to this the fact that the Acting Chief said he was satisfied, upon viewing the videos, that they handled her with the utmost professionalism.

So perhaps this is standard operating procedure. Perhaps this is how people are routinely treated in the Ottawa cell block.

Perhaps it’s normal for half a dozen officers to tie a woman’s arms together behind her back while she’s face-down on the floor, handcuffed and clearly not resisting. Perhaps it’s normal for several people to forcibly remove her clothing. I can only assume it must be normal if it didn’t cause the Acting Chief any consternation, and if two reviews exonerated the officers.

There’s a book called Asylums, written 50 years ago by sociologist Erving Goffman. It is about “total institutions” – closed worlds, such as asylums, prisons, army training camps, boarding schools, old age homes, where the inmates are not free to leave.

He talks about admission procedures to such institutions, and how they are designed to convert the individual into a more pliable object. There are a series of “abasements, degradations, humiliations, and profanations of self.” For example, depending on the institution, there may be “taking of a life history, photographing, weighing, fingerprinting, assigning numbers, searching, listing personal possessions for storage, undressing, bathing, disinfecting, haircutting, issuing institutional clothing, instructing as to rules, assigning to quarters.”

There may be an obedience test or a will-breaking contest, in which defiance is provoked and then punished until the individual accepts defeat and humbles himself.

“The admission procedure can be characterized as a leaving off and a taking on, with the midpoint marked by physical nakedness.”

That would be leaving off of one’s individual identity, and a taking on of a new, assigned identity as an inmate of an institution. There’s much more to it, of course, including loss of privacy, forced relationships, loss of chosen relationships, loss of self-determination.

A prison would be a more classic example of a total institution, since one’s stay there is generally long-term. But I would think any form of incarceration, even an overnight stay in the cell block, bears some similarities.

Perhaps what we are witnessing in the videos of Roxanne Carr and Stacey Bonds in the Ottawa cell block is a series of degradations and humiliations considered perfectly normal and acceptable by the people who carry them out. Meanwhile, the rest of us might expect that a non-resisting prisoner would be escorted into the cell block and politely processed, and then restraints would be removed, and the person would be placed in a cell.

Perhaps that’s how both sides can view the same video and come to such radically different conclusions.

Perhaps we need to be having a different conversation entirely.

6 comments to Maybe police brutality IS standard operating procedure

  • Eric

    The police would never use those words but that’s exactly what they’re doing. It all ties in to the culture of law enforcement.

    Did you see on the interview with the interim chief? He dismissed claims that procedure was violated and then talked about the hard job police do and the impact that cases like this have on moral? Moral? Like the beaten, innocent, and terrified victim cares about the moral of the police? Poor them.

  • Oh sure. They’re in the business of breaking people. Evidently to make themselves feel big.

    The repeat offenders appear to have a touch of sadism though.

    The thing is though, that an night in the cells should not require the breaking of a person’s will. These goons, perhaps motivated by their whiny “us vs. them” mentality, or who knows what mental shortcomings, appear to be doing this for their own self-interest and their own pleasure.

  • Nat

    I think that’s exactly what’s going on but as Eric points out, it really shouldn’t be necessary for a short detention. Quite frankly, I’m appalled at not only the behaviour but also the reaction of the interim chief…

    Screw moral… really that is the least of his concerns, the bigger issue they should be working on is (re?) gaining the public’s trust. Wrong freaking message buddy…

  • Norway’s treatment of the Oslo terrorist is a pretty striking example of how twisted the system is in North America. This article is related:

    Regarding the discussion about institutions, you’d probably enjoy the readings from the prison abolitionism and critical criminology courses I took in university. If I haven’t thrown them out, you’re welcome to borrow/have them. As I was sitting in class and the professor was talking about how institutions (i.e. prisons) are designed to break your spirit in order to mould you into what society and the institution want you to become, I couldn’t help but think that being forced to listen to the droning lecture in a concrete-lined room was the practical component of this lesson.

    As for the deputy chief’s response, there are a few things to consider. Let’s consider a hypothetical police chief responding to an officer killing someone in the line of duty. Of course, anyone being killed at another’s hands is a tragic event; however, there are at least some situations where this is necessary for the safety of the officer or of other vulnerable people. The death itself is lamentable, but that doesn’t mean that the officer acted inappropriately.

    So take this back to the current case(s), where it wasn’t death but injury/beating. There are some situations in which this action on the part of the officer/special constable may be reasonable or necessary, but determining whether such a situation applies isn’t black and white. The less violent the intervention, the more grey you get. The less information available about the incident, the bigger the grey area–although it might not be as visible to some as the black and white areas.

    So aside from all the cultural (i.e. police culture) and political considerations, it doesn’t even make moral sense for a person in the deputy chief’s position to summarily decry the officer’s actions until a fair hearing has taken place. He shouldn’t necessarily support them blindly either, although many on the outside interpret a lack of immediate disapproval to mean support, and many on the inside interpret a lack of immediate support to mean disapproval. Politically, it’s very difficult to backpedal if you turn out to be wrong.

  • I can’t speak about Ottawa police procedures but much to my shame I was once incarcerated overnight for drunk driving. In Niagara I was taken in in cuffs but not forcibly and they were removed when I was in the station. Once the breathalyzer test determined I was going to be spending the night my belt and shoelaces were removed and I was taken to a cell. I got cold and when telling a passing guard about it they provided me another blanket and I was left alone the rest of the night. I was then released in the morning. No one roughed me up, no one tied me up and I was never stripped or strip searched and got out uninjured except for the self induced headache.
    This all happened over 30 years ago so maybe things are worse in Niagara now also but it does seem to come up rather too often in Ottawa. Hopefully the reviewing agencies can come up with an acceptable response so that the police are in fact “serving and protecting” the population rather than bullying and beating them.

  • fuzzpedals

    What’s more frightening is that if this is the way some police officers behave when they know they have a camera trained on them, how they may be treating people out in the city when there is no one filming or watching them.