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Friday, August 08, 2008

Editorial - Shattering public trust

This is the same police department that will investigate its own (and, all too predictably, will find no officer at fault) in the recent post-taser death of 17-year-old Michael Langan.

August 8, 2008
Editorial - Winnipeg Free Press

There have been isolated, sporadic events in Winnipeg's history that have sorely tested citizens' faith in their police force. Never before has the city had to weather the travesty that played out before the Taman inquiry: A chorus of police officers repeatedly sang a "do not recall" refrain when asked about the drinking that went on during an all-night party that ended with Derek Harvey-Zenk plowing his truck into Crystal Taman's car. The inquiry has left Winnipeggers disgusted with the officers involved and with a growing distrust of the police force.

Harvey-Zenk's testimony Wednesday capped an arduous examination of the botched police investigation and subsequent plea bargain that allowed the former officer to escape drunk driving charges and dodge a jail term. Harvey-Zenk, who pled guilty to dangerous driving causing death, testified his memory of events now is full of "holes." The lapse covers a few hours before the "shifter" with his colleagues began at a Winnipeg restaurant, the following house party in East St. Paul and up to the day after he hit Taman at the red light on the highway early the next morning. Winnipeggers grew cynical as the credibility of police officers was dissected. Harvey-Zenk, finally, offered no contrition for his actions.

The seeds of this travesty were sown in the early bungling of the investigation by the East St. Paul police. Evidence was altered or omitted and the Winnipeg internal investigations unit was asked to interview the officers who partied with Harvey-Zenk. This creates the spectre of conflict, a predictable charge the police department will meet as long as the province refuses to establish an independent oversight body with powers to investigate the police force. Justice Minister Dave Chomiak firmly believes the police can investigate themselves. He is sadly blind to the widening mistrust the public has in the extraordinary authority that police wield.

The inquiry studied the decision of the independent prosecutor, Marty Minuk, to accept a plea bargain to the reduced charge of dangerous driving causing death, agreeing to spare Harvey-Zenk a jail term. The controversial move was aggravated when Mr. Minuk gave only a perfunctory explanation in court to the judge weighing the jointly recommended conditional sentence. Mr. Minuk chose the deal rather than risking losing the case, but his silence further undermined the public's trust.

The risks of losing the case were real. Had Mr. Minuk tested the evidence of impairment in court, however, the public would quickly have seen just where fault lay. Mr. Minuk's decision effectively eliminated a key step in keeping police accountable, and called into question the integrity of the justice system. Sometimes even weak charges should be tried in the interest of protecting public faith in the courts, something acknowledged in prosecution policy. This sordid case shows the value in that. It should caution prosecutors against striking deals in the future that can do lasting, perhaps irreparable damage.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

your policies are making it very easy for the police to choose to SHOOT with a gun. Another case in point in Edmonton this weekend

SHOT DOWN and no Taser available

Police gun down youth carrying knife
Lone officer at scene too aggressive, witness says
Elise Stolte and Ryan Cormier, The Edmonton Journal
Published: 2:33 am

EDMONTON - The young man's butcher knife caught the sunlight as he held it over his head and slowly walked backward down a street in northeast Edmonton.

The police officer had his gun drawn, held in both hands.

The officer ordered the man to drop the knife several times. The young man only swore. Then he seemed to either lunge or simply stumble on a curb, said Marlene Flohr, 42.