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Police pictures - A question of public safety - Ottawa police chief responds

Blog posts reflect the views of their authors.
Ottawa police chief Vern White, will not post officer pictures to web.
Ottawa police chief Vern White, will not post officer pictures to web.


Vern White
Chief of Police
Ottawa Police
(by email, sent November 24, 2010)

Re: Request for police officer pictures

Dear Police Chief Vern White,

I write to ask you to increase public safety and improve the accountability of the Ottawa police force by posting the names and pictures of all Ottawa Police officers on the Ottawa Police web site.

Police officers are public servants with power disproportionate to that of a regular citizen. They are also integral members of the community and must be accountable to the public which they serve.

Posting the pictures of police officers on the Ottawa Police web site would increase public safety and would help to protect the public from now rampant police violence against citizens and police abuse of power and irregular behaviour in Ottawa.

It is often difficult, as you know, for victims of illegitimate police aggression to obtain or record and retain the names or badge numbers of offending officers while being subjected to improper treatments and aggressive arrests. I have direct experience with this and can only imagine what it must be like in even more violent situations than the ones I have witnessed on the campus at the University of Ottawa in recent years.

In addition it is important for citizens to be able to protect themselves by avoiding police officers who have been shown or reprimanded by the court or disciplined by their employer for improper behaviour. The web pictures would aid in this regard. As you know, the first defence of a person is to avoid dangerous or volatile situations.

For example, it is presently difficult to find pictures of your officers Const. Shyldon Safruk, Special Const. Glenmore Clarke, Sgt. Steve Desjourdy [photo], Special Constable (Melanie) Morris, and Const. John Flores despite the brutal attacks in which they participated and which have been reported in the media.

Unfortunately, the “few bad apples” theory does not hold water here because these officers would not have undertaken such breaches of the public trust if there was not a broad culture of thuggish disrespect for citizens’ rights within the force. I have repeatedly witnessed this culture and confrontational mentality on the University of Ottawa campus with student arrests, community member arrests, and my own false arrest while I was a tenured professor.

Changing this culture will be a massive undertaking that will take many years in which we will all need to participate. I will do my part. The pictures are an essential easy first step that you can implement immediately.

We need proud officers who uphold the law not delinquent thugs who serve special interests and hide their faces.

As a question of public safety and in the interest of accountability in a democratic society, therefore, will you post the names and pictures of your officers on the Ottawa Police web site? If not, why not?

Please indicate when you will be able to respond.

Denis Rancourt
Former physics professor, University of Ottawa

Cc: Civil society, City Hall, the media


Chief Vern White called me at home.

He said no. He said some other police forces in Canada don't follow the law by not even having name tags. He said pictures would put officers at risk from criminals. He said he had 2000 officers "the vast majority of who have a right to their privacy", that 700 of them were civilians, not sworn officers, and that 250 work special units and are in and out of under cover positions and that he wouldn't even recognize them all.

Chief White said the sworn officer photos "are available if necessary but we wouldn't put them up". He did not know that all regular university professors had their pictures posted. He said that he teaches at both universities (in Ottawa) but that he would not allow them to post his picture if they wanted and he stated that he had no fears from any of his students showing up at his home.

I stated my opinion that more citizens are harmed by police than police harmed by citizens. He asked me my motivation in making the request in my letter and asked me what my goal was. I re-expressed my letter and he disagreed.

His main point was "not everybody wants every criminal to know who you are and what you look like." A main point in my letter is that we need to know what the criminals look like.

He committed to providing me a written answer.


First posted on the Activist Teacher blog:

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Take Your Own Pictures

If Ottawa's Chief Pig doesn't want to provide photographs of abusive and violent cops, then members of the community can take their own photos and video. Community monitoring of the police via "Copwatch" or similar programs can be a very powerful tool, if undertaken with proper training and knowledge of relevant laws.

Observing and recording police "on the job" is a legal activity protected by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (although the cops may tell you otherwise). As long as you do not interfere with the police, which can result in an "obstruction of justice" charge, you are on legally solid ground (nonetheless, it helps to have "middle class" allies such as progressive and civil liberties-minded lawyers and law professors, preferably on your cell phone's speed dial).

If Copwatching at night, it is also important to use non-flash photographic equipment as "blinding" the cops with a flash or camera light could result in an obstruction charge. Also, be sure to keep a respectful distance from the cops, but not so far away that you can't observe them. If they order you to "stay back", ask "how far?". You should also not approach the cops from behind or with your hands in your pockets. Walk, don't run, towards any encounter with the police as they are trained to interpret any sudden, quick or abrupt movements as potential threats.

Never Copwatch in groups of less than three. It goes without saying that you should not Copwatch while possessing illegal drugs or anything that could be construed as a "weapon" (even something as innocuous as a small penknife used to peel fruit!). If you have outstanding warrants, you should not Copwatch.

Of course, even if you scrupulously observe the above, it is no guarantee that cops will not harass or attempt to intimidate you. As well, the above is only the bare bones of Copwatching and is not a substitute for proper training and experience.

Copwatching is not for everyone. If you have problems controlling your emotions in difficult and stressful situations, you probably shouldn't Copwatch. However, if you are committed to social justice, particularly for poor and marginalized people, all you need is some training, a recording device (with night vision) and a small amount of courage and you could make a real difference in your community by holding the cops accountable.

Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms?

Where in the the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms does it state we have the legal right to observe the police? As a Canadian citizen I know we have this right - I just haven't been able to find it in the Charter.

Not Specifically Mentioned

It's not specifically mentioned.  I'm not a lawyer, though I have Copwatched (in BC) and we were instructed (by lawyers) that the British Columbia Police Act in combination with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms gave us the legal right to observe and record the police as they interact with the public.  Of course, the line between "observing" and "interfering" may be a very fine one, at least as far as the police are concerned.

People have conducted Copwatch programs successfully in Vancouver, as well as other cities in Canada, such as Winnipeg and Montreal (from what I've read on-line) and in the United States, where the program was first started (in Berkeley, California, I believe).  Each Copwatch group is autonomous and organize and conduct patrols in accordance with local laws and conditions.



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