It’s no secret that the Hamilton Police Department has been having some “money problems” lately. Budget discussions got so heated this year they threatened to take Council to the Ontario Civilian Police Commission if they didn’t get the increase they wanted. Hiring dozens of new officers while increasing pay and benefits can’t be cheap, I suppose, and so the HPD has found itself a corporate sponsor: Enbridge.

Last February the pipeline giant quietly handed over $34 910 to sponsor a new “ATV unit” for the Hamilton Police, as well as around $10 000 in 2010 . At the time it received little coverage (six lines) but since word started spreading on social media earlier this week it ignited a bit of a fury. A demonstration is planned for Central Station this morning to call attention to the deal and to present an official complaint in writing.

Enbridge, of course, is currently attempting the very controversial Line 9 pipeline reversal in an attempt to get Tar Sands oil east, a path which cuts right through Flamborough, which fell under the HPD’s domain with Amalgamation. As they attempt to finish repairs and get flows started through the ageing pipeline this summer, it seems only natural to expect the same kind of trouble seen with the Keystone XL and Northern Gateway plans reaching south and east from Alberta. Opposition to their plans has been stronger and started earlier here in Hamilton than most, with environmental activists, city councillors and nearby Six Nations all taking a critical stance. One (short) road blockade has already taken place, and it seems pretty likely that they’re expecting more – apparently of the off-road variety…

Hamilton’s not the only municipality along the route to see recent donations from Enbridge – the trend is now so blatant that the Montreal Gazette put together an interactive map. This follows a typical strategy of attempting to buy favour with gifts and sponsorships, to give the impression of generosity and “being a good corporate citizen”. In many smaller, more desperate jurisdictions, it can be quite effective at avoiding serious discussion or at least dividing communities. Most cheques, though, weren’t this large been this large and most have gone to Fire Departments or other services. Only in a few others have they directed their cheques to police. This suggests that Enbridge doesn’t have a lot of hope for winning over the public or council here, and have therefore decided to focus a little more directly on establishing a relationship with the (similarly unpopular) police.

It’s only natural to ask at this point, what Enbridge will expect in return, though the answer seems self-evident. The message is very clear. Should anything happen this summer along Hamilton’s chunk of the pipeline route, an aggressive police response isn’t likely to hurt their chances of getting more gas-guzzling toys in the future.

This sets a terrifying precedent. What other companies, I wonder, might be interested in this kind of “public-private partnership”? I’m sure US Steel, Porter Airlines, RBC, Marineland and many others would love to write similar cheques. Corporate sponsorship is an uncomfortable enough issue when cola companies sign deals with our schools or cigarette manufacturers buy naming rights to cultural events, but corporate donations to police forces raises the stakes in a frightening way. Police carry guns and hold the power to ruin people’s lives, we cannot afford to have them owe favours.

There is a long and ugly history associated with this kind of collusion, and it needs to be brought up. From police involvement with strikebreaking campaigns to the harassment of “undesirable elements” (homeless people, addicts, people of colour etc) from trendy business districts. In one particularly disturbing recent scandal which came to be known as “kids for cash“, an American judge was convicted of taking a million-dollar bribe from the builders of two nearby “juvenile detention centres” to fill them by awarding unusually harsh sentences to youths brought before him. Closer to home, the Toronto Police Association caused an uproar back in 2000 with a fundraising drive they named “Operation True Blue. With a telemarketing drive, they offered “windshield stickers” in exchange $100 “donations”, a move even the mayor couldn’t resist referring to as “paying protection”.

The real problem with donations of this kind really comes down to the size of the numbers involved. Much like donations to election campaigns, the amounts actually given are tiny, often a tiny fraction of what they’d spend on an advertisement or PR campaign for the same purpose. The windfalls, though, can be enormous, easily reaching into the millions or billions (especially for Enbridge) for government action in their favour, making it virtually irresistible. This is exactly why we (are supposed to) have such strong laws against this sort of thing. With this kind of money on the line, though, people are almost certainly going to try.

The real irony here is that Enbridge has probably accomplished the opposite of what they set out to do. A large public donation like this was unlikely to go unnoticed for long and it’s now going to put the police under extra scrutiny during any Enbridge-related enforcement. With any luck, it will set a precedent of a different sort, forbidding such nonsense in the future. Hamiltonians aren’t stupid, and its going to cost a lot more than that to buy our city.