This column is the opinion of Christopher Schneider, professor of sociology at Brandon University and author of Police and Social Media: Social Control in the Age of New Media. For more information on CBC Opinion Sectionplease consult the FAQs.
On Tuesday, the Winnipeg Police Service officially joins Substack, an American online publishing platform. The WPS appears to be among the first major police departments in Canada to join Substack, and one of the few other law enforcement agencies officially represented on the platform.
The WPS, like most law enforcement agencies, already has all the tools it needs to deliver its official messages to the public, from social media platforms to official websites that also function as publication of statements and press releases issued by the police.
Police departments that are on Substack use the platform to post official press releases. An example is the Yalobusha County Sheriff’s Department in Mississippi. The ministry, which serves a population of approximately 13,000 people, publishes its crime-related news releases on its Sub-stack page.
This raises a question: what function does Substack perform for WPS other than providing an editorialized version of events?
Substack works much the same way blogs do, with one important caveat: it’s an email subscription-based service. Readers can subscribe for free or by paying a subscription fee.
Substack launched in 2017 and has since become increasingly popular with freelance writers and journalists looking for editorial independence and personal control over their own written work.
Consider Bari Weiss, former New York Times editor and journalist.
Weiss noted in her resignation letter to the Times that she left the paper because it had “lost sight” of its principles.
An estimate suggests that his popular Substack, “Common Sense with Bari Weiss”, is now generating an astonishing annual income of $800,000.
Impersonal authority is the foundation and hallmark of police legitimacy.-Chris Schneider
“It got me thinking,” writes WPS leader Danny Smyth on “Tried and True,” the name of the new WPS Substack, “Why can’t we use the Substack in the same way to tell our story?”
Unlike journalists and media experts, the police are not and should not be in the area of editorializing their law enforcement work and attempts to do so will only complicate the legitimacy of the police. The legitimacy of the police rests entirely on public judgments and support for police actions.
“Our history” that Smyth claims is not a WPS history. It is rather the story of the people of Winnipeg. And Winnipeggers shouldn’t have to “subscribe” to their history. Nor does Smyth’s view on this matter represent the authoritative version for Winnipeggers.
Public history in recent times has been plagued with criticism from the police.
Even before the pandemic or the murder of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis, a January 2020 national poll reported that less than 50% of Manitobans who participated trusted the police.
Accepting and reflecting on public criticism can lead to new ideas and changes, which can also help restore public trust in the police.
Rather than leaning into public criticism, Smyth seems to have done the exact opposite, seemingly taking the criticism personally.
I think that suggests that maybe some of the public criticism is warranted. Instead of pledging to do better, Smyth chose a relatively untrodden path in law enforcement by speaking out on issues such as the “ideological” media and their “harshness toward reporting on font”, on the WPS sub-stack “Tried and True”.
The impact of this decision on policing authority in Winnipeg remains to be seen.
The research on policing is very clear. Impersonal authority is the foundation and hallmark of police legitimacy.
Editorializing on Substack personalizes police authority and thereby undermines the very efforts to build trust in policing that the Winnipeg Police Chief so desperately desires.