The scramble that followed the killing of four young RCMP officers by wacko farmer Jim Roszko outside Rochfort Bridge northwest of Edmonton early this year has set off more convulsive self-manipulation by the police and the mass media than I can remember in this country outside of parliament. Now that the incident has cooled and whatever lessons that ought to have been learned have been forgotten or ignored as the as the media’s chase machinery moves onto the next thrill, it might be worth looking at what really happened up there, and what it has to tell us.
The RCMP brass sent four relatively inexperienced officers to a rural location to guard evidence of Roszko’s crimes and, presumably, to arrest him if he showed up. Roszko was a known gun-freak who had been terrorizing the community for a decade, and had already spent time in jail for felony offenses, so both due caution and multiple officers were warranted. When I was in the area late last summer I got the impression that the community had been just short of vigilante action on Roszko when he detonated, and that the RCMP were similarly aware of him but hadn’t been able to build a strong enough dossier under Canadian statutes to put the collar around him. No doubt Roszko knew all this, too.
Then there was the physical evidence of criminal activity: parts from a couple of pickup trucks Roszko was stripping down, a rinky-dink marijuana grow operation, along with god-knows-what-else-they-didn’t-tell-us-about because they didn’t want to risk prejudicing a local jury with pretrial disclosures. Altogether, what they found there was likely enough to send Roszko back to jail for a couple of years, a place he’d been publicly vocal about not wanting to revisit.
A stream of police officers had been coming and going at Roszko’s property for 18 hours before the killings, including an Edmonton-based drug squad specializing in marijuana grow-ops. Just after nine in the morning, a pair of theft specialists arrived to gather evidence, and they noted the four officers sedating Roszko’s guard dogs. Moments later, the four wandered into the big Quonset hut where the grow-op and chop shop was located, and that’s when they were shot to death.
What we have here is an unfortunate brew of minor underestimation on the part of the RCMP about how cracked Jim Roszko had become and a failure by Roszko to calculate consequences beyond his general rage at the world. From the anecdotal evidence, he was a man incapable of any social considerations more complex than linear tactics and was chronically raddled by what appeared to be a 90 second attention span. Still, any way you add this up, ninety-nine times out of a hundred, no one is likely to get hurt here except maybe the suspect, and 998 times of a thousand, no one is going to die. The major chemicals that tipped the balance at Rochfort Bridge were mostly bubbling inside Roszko’s head. The other component was the three weapons he either brought with him or—more likely, because it’s hard to sneak across an open field carrying two rifles, a hand gun and ammunition while you’re covered with a sheet—he had stashed inside the building. The minor chemicals were young police officers at the end of a long shift—two of the constables had been on the premises since 11:30 the night before and likely on duty longer than that. They were tired, and possibly not paying sufficient attention.
Now come the maybes: maybe the officers should have searched the building a little more carefully, maybe they should have set up and maintained a tactical perimeter, and maybe they—along with their superiors—should have been a little more wary about exactly where Roszko was, and more cognizant of how dangerous it was not to know. Maybe they should have hidden their cruisers and set up the officers to carry out a real ambush. And maybe they shouldn’t have been left there at all, given that Roszko’s propensity toward violence and his instability were well-known. Maybe a more serious APB should have been put out on Roszko’s capture.
Maybe the world should have fewer sleepy workmen on overtime, fewer bunglers, more police officers and better supervisors, and maybe people as cracked as Roszko shouldn’t be allowed to run around loose in the first place. Maybe the human condition should entail more common sense and foresight, and less incompetence. Maybe it’s all the fault of the Charter of Rights and the pursuit of personal rights at the expense of communitarian responsibility, or maybe the culprit is the Triumph of Capitalism and its suppression of the state. But the world is as it is, and unless we want to have a police state, not every law enforcement contingency can be covered. Sometimes the matrix of “maybes” collapses on those who have built it. When it does, bad things happen.
There’s something else here—almost, but not quite an aside—that’s kind of interesting. Novelty cognition guru Malcolm Gladwell, talking about his new book Blink on one of Toronto television channels around the same time the officers’ memorial services were going on, argued that (and this is my simplification of what he said) the more males you put together with guns and a few minutes to consider their options, the more likely they are to do the wrong thing. Gladwell noted, along the way, that for this reason a lot of law enforcement agencies are currently reconsidering the two-guys-to-a-police-cruiser practice that has been received wisdom in law enforcement for decades. He argues that a single modern communications-enhanced police officer is much more likely to think through a situation and practice due caution if he’s alone than if he’s with another officer. Gladwell stopped short of opining that the Rochfort Bridge four were overconfidently conducting a donut pow-wow inside the Quonset hut when Roszko got them, but he did appear to think it was likely that their comfort with their superior numbers lowered their level of vigilance, and that it may have cost them their lives.
If Gladwell’s theory about collective attention and ordnance is interesting, a lot of other things about this misfortune were simply disturbing. In the first hours after the story broke, for instance, senior brass at the RCMP were transparently scrambling to cover whatever parts of their personal and institutional asses they believed were exposed. Absurdly, they tried to point at marijuana grow-ops as the villain, raising the spectre of organized crime to cover up their administration of the case before anyone thought to point the finger at them.
But listen. I don’t think anyone in the RCMP brass did anything profoundly wrong, just as the four dead officers didn’t do anything negligent enough to get themselves killed. Yet the four officers did get killed, and in our world, that means that all the maybes instantly become raw materials in the factory of the media entrepreneurs. The result was a spectacle in which virtually none of the relevant information is dispersed or analyzed.
So what got buried under this particular spectacle? Well, you have to step back a little to see it. Canadian law enforcement agencies these days have agendas of their own, and the agendas are neither those of the general public or even the governments responsible for regulating police. Police boards and unions—the two slightly-separated generators of law enforcement politics—carefully ignore the fact that we already have too many laws on the books to enforce, and the substance of their campaigns is the demand for more laws and, of course, more officers and more technology. Such a situation is dangerous in a democracy, because the enforcement of any law in a democracy is a signal of political and social failure. In our context, there is a problem that goes beyond the abstractions of democracy. Having too many laws on the books forces law enforcement agencies to choose between the enforcement of one law and another, and leads inevitably to the sorts of situations we have today, where police forces are actively campaigning for their private selection of laws to enforce, one that is inevitably ideological in character.
Our marijuana laws are a good example of how this works. Within Canadian society at large, there is wide (although not general) recognition that marijuana consumption shouldn’t really be treated as a criminal act, nor should its small-scale cultivation be treated as a felony. The best argument for decriminalization is the pragmatic one: if we decriminalized consumption and small-scale cultivation, law enforcement resources would be put to more relevant use, and in the absence of large profits, the cultivation of marijuana will likely remain small-scale. Without decriminalization, they argue, small-scale production is risky, and the result is that most of the cultivation of marijuana has become increasingly large in scale—and increasingly operated by professional criminals willing to take large risks for large profits. Our marijuana laws, in other words, are forcing the weed’s cultivation progressively deeper into the criminal apparatuses, and law enforcement agencies are wasting progressively more overtaxed resources dealing with it, thus creating a law enforcement problem where there doesn’t need to be one.
Since I haven’t smoked dope with any enthusiasm for 30 years, I’m not very excited about joining the contending campaigns to decriminalize or ultra-criminalize marijuana cultivation. I’m much more concerned about entrepreneurial activities among law enforcement agencies, and the fact that the police used the Roszko misfortune to further their agenda. I’m also concerned that the police are wasting resources sniffing out minor marijuana grow ops when they ought to be using those resources to, say, secure our borders against terrorists and importers of drugs that are socially far more destructive, such as cocaine and heroin. But to tell the truth, I’m still less excited about misused police resources than I am about the growth of politically and socially aggressive police lobbies, because that’s what we’re facing these days.
When 10,000 police officers across the country took time off work to attend the memorial services for those four unfortunate RCMP officers—or when they go marching through the streets en mass whenever one of their co-workers gets killed on the job, I tend to respond with questions that may appear to be cynical but actually are at least as distant from cynicism as they are from being rhetorical: Isn’t the possibility that police officers will get hurt on the job an accepted occupational hazard? When a faller working the forests in Northern B.C. drops a tree on his own head—and this happens far more frequently than police officers are killed in the line of duty—why doesn’t every faller in the country leave the forest to parade solemnly up and down at public expense? Are these processions of mourning police officers themselves a cynical exercise in bullying public relations?
And what does it mean when the Federal government declares a national day of mourning for these four officers, and the memorial services are carried live on national radio and on several television networks? If this is that important, where’s the judicial inquiry aimed at preventing it from happening next time?
As far as I can see, the primary institutional purpose of the wildly overdone memorial ceremonies was to bury criticism, and for that matter, any sort of serious analysis. What it leaves behind, buried beneath the sentimental pageantry and the public expression of grief, is the spectre of a law enforcement sector in the process of putting itself beyond public examination, and with a political agenda that should have decent citizens waking in the night in terror, not being manipulated into piling teddy bears in public places. It also raises the spectre of the mass media asleep at the switch, too transfixed—or intimidated—by the orchestration to ask the questions that are its job to bring into the light.
So let’s summarize:
1.) Law enforcement agencies are supposed to be the non-political servants of the laws of the land. Period. It is not—and should not be—part of their mandate to select which laws are to be enforced, or to lobby for any selective enforcement, because a.) it is politically dangerous for any society to allow this, and b.) selective enforcement itself is a functional abrogation of the rule of law, which it is their duty to uphold.
Unenforced laws, by the way, are in and of themselves as great a danger as politicized police. If we want people to respect the rule of law, any law that isn’t going to be enforced should be taken off the books. Not doing this is an invitation for injustice and corruption of the policing mechanisms. More generally, it breeds confusion and disrespect for both the laws and the police among the poor and the poorly enculturated. For criminals, it widens the field of calculated risk, which is always a bad thing given their notoriously poor judgment, entrepreneurialism, and lack of common sense.
2.) Increased levels of media pageantry, despite being commercially sound and possibly even a technological inevitability, is politically dangerous to democracy. Understanding its dynamics and finding ways to suppress it should become a primary target of contemporary media education, a subject our education system has generally failed to provide for either of the two demographic pillars of democracy, the young and the skeptically curious.
3.) Shit happens. Cruel as it may sound, in a sane world, this is the best explanation of the deaths of those four police officers. It should be occasion for a regretful shrug, not parades and circuses. That said, Canada’s increasingly militant pursuit of individual liberty—American style—is massively increasing the production of social and interpersonal shit. Maybe we need to rethink whether we ought to be deliberately rejigging our public realm and our personal lives, because the rejigging is going to deliver a lot more of it.
2300 words: 19 October 2005