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Friday, January 7, 2011

Police budgets, and how a phony narrative gets manufactured

Earlier this week, the Star ran an essay in which the best mayor Toronto's had in the last half-century argues that there's plenty of wasteful spending in the police budget, and that if the Ford regime is serious about trimming fat and stopping the gravy train, there's lots of room to cut there.

What's especially clever about John Sewell's piece is the way he uses the phrases and clichés that Ford ran on – respect for taxpayers, culture of entitlement – and that he's using now that he's in office – you have a mandate, etc. A delightful bit of rhetorical jiujitsu, really.

While you might be able to quibble with Sewell's numbers, it's tough to argue with his basic contention: the police empire consumes more resources than any other municipal expenditure, and while everyone else has to tighten belts and make do with less, the cops just keep demanding more, more, more – and getting it. No oversight, no meaningful demand for efficiency and value for our tax dollars. As he argues, there's a culture of entitlement there. No police board within memory has ever had the stones to stand up to the pressure. It doesn't matter who's running the show – institutionally, there's an assumption that the cops get whatever they want because they have a right to it. This is how children get spoiled. And anyone who tries to stop the gravy train gets smeared as a cop hater.

Enter former staff superintendent Gary Grant. Writing in the Sun (surprise), Grant starts his piece with just that epithet. The first three paragraphs aren't so much about the budget as they are a chance for Grant to vent his spleen: name-calling, ad hominem attacks and resentment. Before he even gets to the meat of his argument, he's managed to call Sewell arrogant, condescending, malicious, a local crank, yargle bargle bleghhh …

There's a paragraph or two on new technology, but no serious attempt to engage Sewell on the numbers. Instead, Grant just dismisses Sewell as a long-time cop hater, and ends his screed with what's supposed to be the knockout blow in the twisted world of Toronto police politics: Sewell's character is summed up by the fact that he didn't go to a police funeral. (More about that in a minute.) Displaying all the maturity and class one might expect of a veteran police officer, Grant winds up with: "Once a jerk, always a jerk."

This, my friends, is how an artificial storyline is manufactured. All of a sudden, it isn't about the numbers any more, nor is it about ensuring respect for taxpayers or the police budget or accountability or the lack thereof – it's about whether John Sewell hates the cops, and about their decades-long vendetta against him for not kissing their asses. Once again, with the help of the Sun, any serious discussion gets sidetracked, and instead we're left with simple-minded appeals to emotion, gut instinct and tribalism.

Speaking of which, let's get back to that matter of police funerals. Time for a little blunt talk. It's obligatory, in contexts such as this, to acknowledge the heroism of our boys in blue – you know, the ones who protect us from the hordes of thugs, put their lives on the line, yada yada yada.

Now that that's out of the way, we can state the obvious: cop funerals are massive tribal displays. They are propaganda circuses milked for every possible bit of mawkish PR. They stage funerals for fucking horses, for Chrissakes. And any public official who shows any reluctance to validate one of these circuses with his or her presence can expect to be smeared as a cop hater.

Tells you all you need to know about where Gary Grant's coming from, really. This retired cop would have us judge the quality of a guy's character by whether or not he takes part in one of these displays. Never mind that had Sewell actually gone to the funeral, he would probably have been smeared for being there.

Um … Gary, can we talk for a second? Frankly, the fact that a guy in John Sewell's position has the fortitude and independence of mind NOT to participate only increases my respect for him, in ways and for reasons you'll never understand.

You see Gary, I'm having a hard time deciding whether you're as cynical and manipulative and calculating as your article suggests – you know, moving the discussion into the realm of blunt visceral emotion – or whether you're just too simple-minded and unimaginative and two-dimensional to grasp the notion that people can disagree with you and your flat, unnuanced way of seeing the world ... and still be good citizens.

I'm betting it's the latter.


  1. I imagine that there's plenty of fat to cut there.

    It sickens me to think that this criminal gang expects a pay raise!

  2. I remember Sewall as a great mayour during a more innocent time. Didn't he ride a bike? What a pinko. Speaking of fat to trim, the cops should go on a diet.