Should the RCMP have done it?
I’m talking, of course, about its seizure of firearms from evacuated High River homes. That the seizures came during a state of emergency situation doesn’t matter as much, and the legality of the seizure isn’t the main question.
Central to the rule of law is that those involved in its administration use caution in its application. Judges or law enforcers, for example, should adjust their judgment to context and circumstance. In that sense, a judge who gives a lenient sentence to a repentant teenager prudently adapts to the circumstance of contrition. Context matters.
In the wisdom of our legal tradition, context matters because the purpose of justice is not the blind application of the law, but the promotion of goodness and fairness. It recognizes that applying rules for the sake of the rules unduly limits liberty and could beget tyranny.
In that tradition, there have been instances in which police have ignored calls to action or refused to enforce laws against protesters blocking roads. To their discretion, the enforcement of the letter of the law might put people in greater danger and undermine the public’s perception of police neutrality which, if true, erodes in turn the fairness that justice seeks to promote. The smoke screen of “just following orders,” or simply applying the law, therefore, is insufficient.
So, when the RCMP announced seizing “large quantities of weapons” in High River because they were improperly stored, we have to look at the circumstances and not only the law’s application. The Mounties claim that, during their sweep of evacuated High River homes to check to see if there were people left behind, they discovered the regulation-violating firearms. They quickly “secured,” as they like to phrase it, the firearms.
The broader context is known, but it needs to be spelled out. The homes were vacant because people were ordered to evacuate by the same authority that forced its way into locked homes. The police claim they seized the firearms because of the risk of the items being stolen, which begs the question as to what they did with the valuable porcelain and silverware they encountered and that was also “in plain view.”
As there had been no reports of looting in High River since it was sealed off, the ironic justification for violating privacy and property in order to protect property is unconvincing.
It makes you wonder about the RCMP’s judgment: first, order and enforce an evacuation, then seize private property from people’s vacated homes, then inform the evacuees of the seizure while at the same time ignoring their pleas for permission to return to their homes in their hopes of retrieving some of their prized possessions themselves. Even if well meant, the crass announcement failed to account for human fragility in situations of disaster.
But the greater effect of the RCMP’s actions is that people are questioning its motives. Is the federal police force more interested in boosting their incident report statistics than in protecting the rights of vulnerable citizens?
Most reasonable people understand the need of police or firefighters entering our homes in an emergency, even when we are not home. But that is quite a different thing from allowing them to bust down doors, break locks inside and seize our property. Although no charges may be laid and the items are returned, there is a violation of trust in the Mounties going through our drawers.
The colossal lack of RCMP judgment in this incident will likely have an even greater impact outside of High River. The repercussions will be national. In future disaster and emergency situations, its crafty seizure of firearms will make people even more reluctant to leave their homes.
The imprudent firearms roundup has eroded public confidence in the federal police. In going through the evacuees’ closets and locked cabinets, the Mounties have exposed themselves to greater mistrust. And that sentiment, in the long run, may endanger more lives rather than safeguarding them.