All laws are put in place as a toolbox from which law enforcement officers can draw upon to fix a problem in the community.
Few things can be more frustrating for me, however, than an officer who reads too much into what the court system does or does not do to support them.
On a ride-a-long many years ago I heard several officers from an RCMP detachment voice their concerns about a judge who brought down highly questionable sentences. This judge was extremely light on drug offences. The type or quantity of drugs made no difference. The officers could arrest an entire drug lab or organized gang of traffickers and the judge would sentence them to either 40 hours of community service or to make a donation to a local charity in lieu of a fine or to do both. This same judge refused to convict anyone for driving a car without insurance because the minimum $2,000 fine was, in his estimation, too severe. The officers complained that due to this they would not lay charges for these offences.
Officers, when confronted with these circumstances, should first and foremost remember that their duty is to prevent offences in their community. Officers should also remember that the job they took on is not, and I repeat not, a popularity contest. In spite of all the glowing literature spun out by the PR department policing is not about officers dressed up in fuzzy little animal suits or sitting on the local dunking machines for charity. It is all about preventing crime.
One big way to prevent crime, but not exclusively, is to send out a strong enforcement image in the community. I do not wish to burst any bubbles in the judiciary but true crime prevention is not performed within the cloistered halls of the courtroom. It is accomplished through the vision of every officer on the street doing his/her job of enforcement. It is the officer patrolling the community that sets the pace for the level of crime. These officers should never be dissuaded from this duty by a judicial system that they feel does not hold up its end of the bargain.
A case in point from my own experience was a judge who did not feel my laying speeding charges of 50 km/h (30 mph) in a 40 km/h (25 mph) zone was appropriate. He would dismiss the charges without listening to any evidence as to why such a low enforcement threshold was being used. As charge after charge was thrown out my first thoughts were to simply stop enforcing at these levels and revert back to the standards arbitrarily set by some phantom home-spun form of case law.
Instead I went out of my way to flood this judge’s court with offences at exactly 50 km/h in a 40 km/h zone. If a speeder was higher I would reduce it to 50 in a 40 zone. The judge continued to throw them out without hearing my evidence. After seeing the pattern I had initiated, and the overflowing courtroom, he finally let me give my evidence on one of the tickets.
“It is a school zone at a time of maximum vehicular and pedestrian traffic. It is also a location where residents are complaining about speeders. The posted sign says 40 not 50 km/h. There is no other way to get the message across to motorists the speed has changed. I am concerned with the safety of the children in the school zone and determined this is the level of enforcement which will get the message out.”
This appeared to be a defining moment. The judge ordered a recess and called me into his chambers. Not knowing what to expect my apprehension level rose considerably. Surprisingly he said he could see my point and now understood that we both have levels of discretion that should be working in harmony for the good of the community. I was stunned and appreciative of his candor. He said he was wanting to back me up on this matter and thanked me for getting the message across to him. We returned to the courtroom and he began convicting people and tripling the fines for not-guilty pleas.
Officers may or may not encounter the judge that I did but in the larger world of law enforcement it is not a contest for convictions. I remember some time back that some officers in some jurisdictions were inappropriately evaluated by their supervisors on “conviction rates”. In the Western world, at least, it is not the officer’s duty to get a conviction. It is only his job to bring a true bill to the courts. Extenuating circumstances are ultimately up to the defence to present and the courts to determine their evidentiary worth.
At the street level each officer must determine what level of enforcement is necessary for the good of the community rather than what will please the courts. This discretionary enforcement level should be determined by the officer’s good conscience and tempered by the wisdom of their peers and superiors.
Nothing should prevent an officer from being his/her own trend setter and from bringing their own sense of values and creativity to the job that must be done. After all is said the police selection process is suppose to screen for good judgement and discretionary ability among many other qualities. This can not be instilled by any police college… nor by court judgements. If you carry the position of law enforcement officer then you are expected to have it.