On February 15, the Ontario Police Commission overturned a decision by the Toronto board of Police Commissioner. The latter had upheld the finding of a lower disciplinary tribunal that Constable David Packer had been guilty of insubordination and should resign or be fired for refusing to guard the Morgentaler abortuary in Toronto.
Demotion and resignation
The OPC did agree that Packer had failed to obey an order, but concluded that dismissal was too severe a penalty because of his excellent record during his twelve year career on the force. Instead it recommended that he be reduced to the rank of fourth-class constable. Metro Police Chief William McCormack let it be known that he wasn’t pleased with the decision (Star, February 16, 1990)
Instead of accepting this penalty, Packer resigned from the police force. The lengthy affair was over, except for the lessons we can draw from it.
The main one is surely the moral obtuseness of many of the parties involved in it.
George Monteith, counsel for the Metro Board of Police Commissioners, presented the case against Packer before the OPC. He declared that public peace and security are imperiled, and demanded that police officers set aside personal feelings and do any job assigned them. The public, he said, requires policemen “without malice or favour or ill will to do their tasks.” If Packer is re-instated, he argued, there could be dangerous results since it would signal other officers to pick and choose their duties.
Until a Metro policeman learns to “park his beliefs at the door,” Mr. Monteith insisted, he is unfit for duty: “You should either do your duty or discontinue (police work) for something more compatible. Being a police officer requires you to rise above your personal beliefs.”
Like previous prosecutors in the lengthy wrangle between Packer and his superior officers, Monteith seemed to have no concept of the horrifying nature of the principle he was laying down. His principle raises enormous questions of public morality:
Can there be anything worse than a policeman without a conscience?
If he hasn’t one, how can he behave without malice or favour?
Is a policeman not supposed to have a sense of justice or any conscientious scruples about lying or taking bribes?
How can a policeman keep the peace if he has personal knowledge of what keeping the peace really means?
Arhtur Lymer, president of the Metro Toronto Police Association, unfortunately took the same approach to this matter as Monteith did. “We defended Packer,” he said. “We paid his legal bill and gave him the best lawyer we had. But I think the vast majority of our members already knew the answer to the question, which is that a policeman cannot have his own conscience and decide which laws he will or will not enforce.”
Policemen know that they have to obey orders, he added: “You can’t take your conscience to work. Police officers are sworn to uphold the law in spite of what they think,” he told the Toronto Star February 18.
Once more, statements such as this raise more problems than they solve. Hat, for example, is one to think about the defense of Klaus Barbie, the World War II butcher of Lyons, France, who states that he was only obeying orders? Everyone knows that this claim is no excuse whatever for his barbarous deeds.
Similarly, the security forces in Romania brought opprobrium on themselves by torturing and shooting their fellow citizens; again, they claimed to have acted in obedience to the orders of a vicious tyrant. But the excuse will not do; an officer can never park his conscience outside when he enters a police building and comes to duty.
Metro’s Police Chief William McCormack also commented on the Packer affair, stating that “the whole manner in which this came about was in his refusal to accept a lawful order.” Like any other police constable, “He’s expected to obey the rules and regulations of the force,” and “One of the prime functions of a police officer is to prevent a breach of the peace – wherever that may be.”
Is Mr. McCormack just pretending, or is he really that obtuse?
Protecting an illegal establishment
Still another feature of the whole affair has been buried. When Monteith, McCormack and the rest say that it is an officer’s duty to keep the peace, why do they forget to mention that, at the time the alleged breach of duty by Constable Packer occurred, he was being asked to protect an establishment which was illegal?
Before the Supreme Court overturned section n251 of the Criminal Code in January 1988, abortion as against the law except for those done in hospitals under certain conditions. Morgentaler was openly performing abortions without obeying those conditions.
The Metro police themselves had even brought charges against him – only to have the charges “stayed” by orders of the Attorney General, Mr. Ian Scott. Constable Packer was not being asked to preserve the peace, but to ensure that it was broken.
A letter to the Toronto Star of February 28 points out that a policeman’s conscience is all-important. “We are speaking of an individual,” says the letter writer, “who believes that an event that is morally wrong is taking place behind the doors of the abortion clinic. Surely in this day and age of increasing confusion as to what is right and wrong, we need more people in people in positions of authority with a conscience.”
One difference between Mr. Packer and the upper levels of police management who dealt so harshly with him surely resides in the fact that he possesses a much more highly developed conscience and a much more highly developed moral imagination than they do.
Constable Packer was not prepared to forget about what was happening behind the doors of the abortuary; he knew that offences were being committed against the law of nature and the law of God. And he possessed the sensitivity to be appalled at what was taking place.
He has told how, when he was driving to work in the mornings, he would think of the thirteen babies who were going to be killed that day. He even imagined what they looked like; he put faces to them. To his mind, they were not abstract entities, but living human beings.
The Packer case is a classic instance of man enduring misfortunate because he does the right thing. David Packer has had to suffer persecution for righteousness sake.
Speaking at the 26th annual Metro Police Mass and Communion Breakfast on February 25, Toronto’s Emmet Cardinal Carter referred to the Packer case in equivocal terms. Police Chief McCormack and about 500 officers and members of their families heard the Cardinal say that he had no clear-cut answers to situations such as that which Constable Packer faced; he could not arbitrate between their devotion to God and the law. “I suggest to you that I don’t know the answer,” he told them. “The answer lies in you, in your conscience, in your assessment of what is right and wrong.”
Still, the Cardinal made it clear that those who say that a policeman must set aside his private convictions when he is on duty and simply obey orders are completely in error. Betraying his beliefs, he declared, could make him a danger to the people whom he is supposed to protect. Dedication to his beliefs, the Cardinal stated, is an officer’s most important asset and it is eroded by conflicts of conscience. “If a policeman is not dedicated he’s not only unhappy, but a menace.”
The Cardinal compared the dilemma policeman face to that of Sir Thomas More in Henry VIII’s time, and to Socrates. Both chose conscience and death rather than accept unjust laws.
If Cardinal Carter did not actually say that the treatment of Constable Packer was unjust, he did, first defend the policeman’s appeal to conscience and, second, compare him to a great saint – St. Thomas More. That may be some consolation.