In that bizarre movie Jane Mansfield’s Car, well-known actor Robert Duvall, a nosy citizen, arrives at a traffic accident scene and confidently walks through the police line. He chats with the cops about how the accident occurred.
That scene would never occur in Ontario where police have expanded and tightened their no-go perimeters at investigation scenes. This is disturbing because it is part of a trend by governments to squeeze the public’s right to information.
There are some examples from our own Haliburton County this summer.
There was that fatal shooting at a house on Highway 118 in which the OPP closed off a long section of highway. A media photographer trying to do his job was not allowed to go further than the road shoulder.
Another OPP officer stonewalled a reporter by saying he couldn’t tell her anything. He brushed off the reporter by saying there was no media relations officer to handle any questions. In other words: get lost.
There also was an OPP investigation on Highway 35 at Saskatchewan Lake. Again a long section of highway was closed while OPP checked out an abandoned car suspected to have been involved in a Lindsay death. Anyone travelling north or south between Carnarvon and Dorset had to detour via the Kushog Lake Road.
Also on 35 just south of Dorset the OPP investigated a fatal car crash and closed the highway so tightly that anyone travelling from Dorset to, say a St. Nora Lake cottage, had to backtrack along Highway 117, go south on 11, then east on 118 and then north on 35. That is a detour of one and one-half hours.
In all three incidents the police gave little or no consideration to public inconvenience or the needs of the news media, which reports to the public.
One of the most ridiculous examples of police over-controlling a situation occurred last fall in Hamilton. Corporal Nathan Cirillo of the Hamilton-based Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders was shot and killed at the National War Memorial in Ottawa.
He lived in east Hamilton and Hamilton police sealed off several streets in his neighbourhood. No threat was involved and Cirillo’s killer already had been shot dead on Parliament Hill.
Hamilton police, when asked why such a large area had been sealed off, said it was out of respect for Cirillo’s family. They didn’t want media and citizens in the neighbourhood where the family lived.
Wouldn’t a couple of officers posted on the street outside the home have been enough?
Last month a Toronto police superintendent was found guilty of unnecessary exercise of authority in the arrest of more than 1,000 protesters at the 2010 G20 summit in downtown Toronto. The presiding judge said the superintendent lacked an understanding of the public’s rights.
We all understand that police work is difficult and that there are good reasons for controlling investigation scenes. The problem is that police over control too often, not considering public inconvenience or the public’s right to know.
The real concern here is not about a cop at a crime or accident scene having a bad day, or getting puffed up and over exercising his or her authority. Cops at the scene get their orders and their attitudes from their commanders. Their commanders get their orders and their attitudes from the top police brass. And, of course, the top police brass get their orders and attitudes from the politicians.
Our politicians are masters of media manipulation and of controlling what they want the public to hear and see. Police brass take their cue from the politicians, or in some cases are simply told what to withhold or manipulate.
Increased police control of what we see and hear is only a small part of a wider and more serious Canadian problem: lack of genuine freedom of information.
Canada in many ways is a closed society because so much of its information is controlled by politics. A truly open society is controlled by knowledge and our knowledge never can be complete until we learn the true value of sharing information.