Toeing The Line

January 17, 2011

It has been eye-opening over the course of the past week, just how much difficulty I’ve encountered attempting to write something, anything about the circumstances surrounding the death of Toronto Police Sargeant, Ryan Russell. What’s that nagging voice, tub-thumbing from the depths of my frontal cortex? No, no, no, no! Don’t say that! You can’t say that! Is that… could it be… self-censorship? Really?

Where I seem to possess precious little hesitancy in hammering away at our politicians, when it comes to the police, I have proven to be a veritable pussycat. A sign of respect? Maybe. Worse, fear? I would hope not, after all, we’re not living in Russia. This isn’t Russia. Is this Russia? This isn’t Russia. (A quiet shout-out to all you Caddyshack fans in the audience.)

Surely I don’t think that if I speak out in less than glowing terms about the police, their conduct, their budget demands, I will somehow be targeted. My name added to a list, my movements monitored, mysterious break-ins at the office. That’s ridiculous. I mean, look at former mayor John Sewell. A much more visible target, standing on a higher platform, making far more contentious comments. Yet, he continues to freely cycle around town, subject only to printed personal attacks (links h/t to Orwell’s Bastard) and not any unsolved hit-and-runs attempts. We don’t live in that kind of country.

No, my hesitancy in writing about police issues is much more internalized, bred into the bone with a steady diet of reverence and dutiful observance to the service performed by our men and women in blue. Selflessly putting their lives on the line each and every day, providing that Thin Blue Line between order and chaos. I’ve accepted the narrative and on most days even believe it. During the course of a lifetime, I’ve met a number of cops who, to a person, have been genuinely decent people.

I do not begrudge them their outpouring of grief for their fallen compatriot and the public spectacle that will be Sgt. Russell’s funeral tomorrow. A word will not be peeped about the traffic congestion created as police numbering in the thousands march down University Avenue in downtown Toronto. So it should be. (Here’s that self-censoring gnome, hammering away again.) Society must maintain a heightened shock at the death of a police officer in the line of duty. The graveness of such an act needs to be underscored. We cannot simply shrug off the murder of one who has sworn to protect citizens and uphold the laws of the land.

But… but… at the same time we seem to have become blithe in the face of the pain and suffering occurring amongst the weakest members of our society. No, Sgt. Russell’s accused killer, Richard Kachkar, did not die in the course of his arrest. He was just wounded. But over the last two decades, some 10 individuals suffering from mental illness have been killed at the hands of Toronto police.

While I’m certainly not blaming the police directly for such killings (or at least, my self-censoring self doesn’t), neither do I think we should simply shrug our shoulders and brush it off as just another crazy fuck snapping. It can hardly be a coincidence that over the course of those same last two decades, senior levels of government have cut deeply into mental health funding in their rush toward fiscal responsibility, opening wide the doors of psychiatric institutions and leaving the vulnerable to the vagaries of the streets, the kindness of strangers and the stretched-to-snapping resources of municipalities. We’ve delegated the police to be the last line of defense in our handling of those afflicted with mental illness, resulting in all too regular tragic turns of events like the death of Sgt. Russell.

It is not my intention to politicize all this but it can hardly be avoided, I guess. Witness Councillor Ford’s outburst at the budget committee meeting last week. However, it is worth noting and repeating that the Toronto Police Services budget, already comparable to what the city spends on all its social services, is not in line to be cut. Its requested increase decreased somewhat but not cut. In order to balance the city’s budget (while maintaining sacrosanct tax cuts and freezes), ‘inefficiencies’ and ‘re-allocations’ will have to be found elsewhere. With such a zero sum, dog-eat-dog scenario, it’s tough to believe that more confrontations between our police and already neglected sufferers of mental illness won’t be in the offing.

All this is not to say we shouldn’t mourn the death of Sgt. Ryan Russell. But perhaps afterwards, when all the solemn pageantry has finished, we can take a moment to consider those we’ve marginalized and left to their own devices. Initiate a discussion about this systemic neglect we’ve allowed to happen and whether there are more sensible and humane methods of dealing with those who’ve so sadly fallen through society’s cracks.

Nothing can be easier than celebrating and venerating our most powerful institutions especially when they suffer a loss. Our measure, though, should be taken by how we regard and tend to those left abandoned and neglected, with little voice to speak for their cause. Those who should be cared for not policed.

reluctantly submitted by Cityslikr