At last week’s General Issues committee, Councillor Sam Merulla brought forward a proposal to create a new, late-night bylaw “SWAT” team. These “commandos” would be responsible for noise bylaws and other infractions between 1 and 7am, a time when police are often too busy to respond. Merulla also proposes that these officers, possibly “special constables”, would be armed and trained in self-defence. Council voted to study the idea.

“As long as there are no issues with the police, we’d create a department of special constables who can defend themselves, whether it be with firearms, bats or some other way” -Councillor Sam Merulla

Firearms or bats!?! For noise complaints?

Does our city really need another paramilitary security force? Do they have to be armed? Has anyone considered the very real possibility that somebody will be killed? Is a noise complaint worth that?

In February of last year, 19-year-old Andreas Chinnery was shot and killed by police responding to a noise complaint, finding him alone in his own Barton St. East apartment. Last month, the province finally opened an inquest into his death. Have we, as a city, learned nothing from this tragedy?

I may not be the biggest fan of cops, but I know the difference between years and weekends of use-of-force training. There’s no cheap substitute for police. How will a separate, night-time bylaw bureaucracy be any more accountable than our existing police force? And does anybody believe that armed officers with even less training and oversight will help prevent yet another tragedy?

Hamilton isn’t the only city to have these kinds of ambitions. Toronto’s Giorgio Mammoliti suggested arming bylaw enforcement and giving them the power to arrest in order to stop graffiti. He also suggested bringing in the army to police the streets. Vancouver had its “Downtown Ambassador” program in which private security guards were paid by the city and BIAs to patrol business districts, often accused of harassing the homeless. Other cities have experimented with broader privatization of their police forces, such as the UK’s Surrey and West Midlands and now at least ten others. As a result, there’s been a massive growth in the private security sector, ranging from municipal enforcement all the way to ‘defence contractors’ in Iraq and Afghanistan. One question, at the end of all these cases stands out: who do they answer to?

It isn’t as if our police are “stretched”. They’ve seen their budget increased yearly since at least amalgamation, with constant plans by politicians like mayor Bratina to add dozens to their ranks at a time. Their largest recent initiative, the ACTION team, saw 43 more cops walking, biking or horse-riding ‘the beat’ downtown and elsewhere in an admitted attempt to saturate public places with police presence. They call it “high visibility policing”. Other initiatives include “blitzes” targeting jaywalking(!) and people who ride bikes without bells or teenagers drinking in the woods. There’s even a cop regularly stationed up the street from Webster’s Falls on the weekends for most of the summer, regulating parking access. Does this sound like a force that’s overstretched, or a city gripped with disorder?

There is a difference between “obnoxious” and “criminal”, and that line exists to protect all of us. There will always be those who’d love to see armed men swoop in and carry off individuals who annoy them, and I’m familiar enough with indignant people to know that they always feel the law’s on their side. Politicians and the media tend to get a lot of traction out of these frustrations, since they correlate well with their wealthier and more influential customers. The problem comes when public safety becomes indistinguishable from middle-class social norms, such as those present in (private and heavily regulated) suburban shopping malls. The drive for “law and order” stems from desires which can never be satisfied, since expectations only rise with standards. Crime rates have been falling across the continent for a decade or two now, and that’s a big part of the reason these issues are suddenly such a big concern.

We don’t need a new force of almost-cops to deal with nuisance crimes. If we have enough cops for “high-visibility policing”, then we have enough cops to knock on doors at night and tell people to quiet down. A better question, though, would be whether it’s possible to deal with such problems without guns, such as sending somebody by the following day? Hamilton’s problems can’t be fixed by making our bureaucracies any more overbearing and hostile, or leaving our communities more reliant on organized force for basic conflict resolution. We don’t need any more tragedies, and most of all, we can do better.