Criminologist says police criticisms of justice system ‘deeply troubling’

A University of Ottawa criminologist says the decision by police unions to wade into the criminal justice system in the wake of the death of an Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) officer is disturbing.

“They are using the opportunity as police officers, who are supposed to be politically neutral and stick to enforcing the law not making them,” said Justin Piche, an associate professor of criminology.

“To hear them call for more imprisonment, which vast reams of criminological research has shown to be the most costly and least effective way of enhancing safety in our communities, I think is deeply troubling.”

Last month, OPP officer Greg Pierzchala was shot and killed while conducting a roadside check in southern Ontario.

Randall McKenzie of Onondaga First Nations of the Six Nations of the Grand River Territory, is one of two people charged with first-degree murder in his death.

Last Friday, four police unions issued a joint press release saying officer safety is at an unprecedented risk.

“In the past few months we’ve had five officers killed which I call unprecedented over my 27 years,” Ontario Provincial Police Association president John Cerasuolo said.

“Having different incidents where officers have been ambushed and murdered. That doesn’t happen. Have we had five officers killed at one time? That’s happened but not over a series of events and incidents that have led to this.”

Piche said the only problem with this statement is that it isn’t true.

Numbers collected by an organization called the Criminalization and Punishment Education Project (CPEP) show officer deaths in comparison to population have been steadily on the decline since the1960s when statistics were first recorded.

According to the CPEP, “16 on duty police officers died in both 1962 and 1968, which marked the highest recorded annual levels of such deaths in Canada during the period examined for which data is available.

“Taking a longer view, this CPEP resource also shows that on duty police officer deaths in Canada have declined decade over-decade over the past forty years, which cast doubts on claims made by policing professionals in recent days about the increasing dangers police officers face and also raises questions about associated statements they have made, including whether the measures they have proposed to prevent on duty police officer deaths in the future (e.g. more restrictive bail and harsher sentencing regimes) are evidence-based.”

McKenzie was out on bail facing charges of assault and weapons-related offences when the shooting occurred and this has led police unions to call for a tightening of bail restrictions.

“We need to look at bail conditions, how we treat bail violations on the go forward,” Cerasuolo said. “I think we need to really take a look. Some people are saying it’s broken. I’m just saying it’s not working. It’s not working for what we need it to do. Because if police officers aren’t safe, that leaves the community at risk as well.”

Again, Piche said existing evidence doesn’t indicate Canada’s bail system to be too soft but quite the opposite.

“In Ontario right now, we know, thanks to a coroner’s inquest into deaths at the Lindsay super jail this past summer, that the people who are awaiting trial behind bars are over 75 per cent of the people who are there. With 25 per cent of people serving sentences of two years minus a day. That doesn’t strike me as evidence of a bail system that is lenient.”

The police unions say they plan to do a thorough review of Canada’s justice system in the coming months in hopes of making suggestions that will make both officers and the public safer.

Editor’s Note: The original story said McKenzie was from Mississauga of the Credit First Nation. We apologize for the error. 

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