Friday, December 04, 2009

Police spying demands explanation, oversight

Police spying on citizens should creep you out.
Not surveillance done as part of ongoing investigations or court-ordered searches or wiretaps. Those are justified.
But that's not what Victoria police Chief Jamie Graham described to the Vancouver International Security Conference this week.
That sounded much more like police spying on citizens just because they could.
Graham was a keynote speaker at the conference, which attracted paying customers looking for insights on security trends. Perhaps he didn't expect his remarks to become public.
He spoke about the Victoria police department's $220,000 effort to provide security for the start of the Olympic torch relay.
And Graham offered the delegates some inside information. The protesters weren't so clever, he said.
"You knew that the protesters weren't that organized when on the ferry on the way over, they rented a bus, they all came on a bus - and there was a cop driving," he said. His comments were reported by Bob Mackin of 24 hours, a Vancouver daily newspaper.
So, based on what Graham told the conference, police secretly found out what bus company a group from the Lower Mainland was going to use.
Then they approached the company and convinced the manager to pull the regular driver and let an undercover officer drive. (It would be interesting to hear what officers told the company about the person chartering the bus.)
And then the officer drove the bus, keeping watch on the passengers in the rearview mirror, presumably eavesdropping and making notes on peoples' names and what they said.
These aren't terrorists. They hadn't done anything wrong. (And there were no arrests at the protests that day.) No court had approved surveillance.
They were Canadian citizens on a bus going to a legitimate public protest. Some opposed Olympic spending. Others thought issues like health care were being ignored.
And the state was spying on them.
So what, some say. Let the police do what they think best to preserve order.
We've seen countries where the state does what it thinks best to keep order - like East Germany or China.
Of course, we don't expect police and security forces would go so far in Canada.
But those charged with keeping order make that the priority.
And without laws, accountability and oversight, it is inevitable they will trade individual rights for collective security.
The issues can be complicated. I see nothing wrong with undercover police walking with protesters in a public place. I hope officers are monitoring groups planning crimes, even infiltrating them.
And I'm deeply concerned if they are spying on citizens, and compiling reports and files, simply because people exercise their right to express their views. Choosing to come to a protest shouldn't make you a police target.
This isn't benign. The people who rented the bus have been publicly branded as dangerous.
More significantly, everyone who attended the protest now must wonder if they were spied on by police officers driving the bus or joining the march. They must wonder if their names are on a list in a government file.
And, perhaps, next time they will just stay home.
Graham is refusing to answer questions. It's unclear if this was a Victoria police operation, approved by the police board, or done by some other agency.
There has been no explanation of the intelligence justifying placing an officer behind the wheel of the bus.
Part of the problem is that Graham's comments and subsequent silence indicate he doesn't consider this to be a serious issue.
At the least, you would hope such an operation would receive serious consideration before it went ahead.
Since 9/11, rights have often been sacrificed in pursuit of security. That's alarming.
To see them reduced still more, casually, to protect the image of the Olympics, is frightening.
Footnote: The exercise also raises questions about prudent spending of taxpayers' money on Games-related security. Did it really make sense to have a police officer, on overtime, work extra shifts to drive a bus? How can the public have confidence that the $1 billion in Games security spending will actually be justified?


Anonymous said...

"Of course, we don't expect police and security forces would go so far in Canada."

No one ever does - no one ever did.

I wonder sometimes, Paul, why you choose to couch your words the way you do, instead of stating the obvious. We are going down a road from which it will be difficult to impossible to find a way to get turned around, with just a little more momentum to push us along.

We've had a government Ministry of Propaganda for quite some time now and those in positions of authourity have long since learned that they are not accountable - to anyone. So why wouldn't the police assume Gestapo powers for themselves?

Law and order, right?


Stuart said...

What Raymond said.

Anonymous said...

I`m sure the grownups will have to have a talk with police chief graham and scold him about shooting off his big mouth and compromising their chance to play world class spy. I can just imagine what sort of threats to security a bunch of well meaning concerned citizens in sencible shoes riding a chartered bus to victoria are.I mean, they must be a pretty dim bunch running security if vthey think these type of people pose a danger to anyone.

Norman Farrell said...

This follows the work of mental giants who viewed journalist Amy Goodman as a risk to Canadian peace and good order. She went home and wrote this as a column opening:

"Going to Canada? You may be detained at the border and interrogated. I was, last week."

Now, Jamie Graham add his two cents and demonstrates treatment of Goodman was not a one-off blunder.

Of course, if you look at Graham's record over many years, you cannot be surprised by this latest evidence of disregard for honorable behavior.

North Van's Grumps said...

This officer that drove the bus, was he in possession of a Class 4 (unrestricted) BC Driver's License which would allow him to operated a bus with a maximum capacity of 25 persons (including the driver) or a Class 2 BC Driver's license which is required to operate buses, school buses and special vehicles?

Just how many vehicles do police officers in Victoria drive that requires them to be trained to operate larger vehicles?

If the police officer didn't have the proper training, or license, was a law broken?