You may have arrived here via a direct link to a specific post. To see the most recent posts, click HERE.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Looking at deaths from arm's length

August 8, 2008
The Globe and Mail

When Craig McDougall died last week, he became the second aboriginal man to be killed by Winnipeg police officers in less than a month. Both Mr. McDougall's shooting death and the taser-inflicted death of Michael Langan will be investigated internally. Legitimate questions raised by leaders of aboriginal communities about the conduct of the Winnipeg police will not be answered satisfactorily without an external investigation, a procedure recommended by Manitoba's Aboriginal Justice Inquiry two decades ago.

Earlier this week, aboriginal leaders who demanded a public inquiry into the Winnipeg Police Service after the deaths of these young men were chastised by Winnipeg's mayor and told to wait for the facts. The province's Justice Minister expressed his faith in an internal investigation. But these recent deaths have raised doubts about the abilities and sensitivities of the municipal police force. If nothing else, the fact that the investigations of these deaths will be conducted by colleagues of the officers concerned will lead to a public perception of bias.

The soon-to-be-concluded public inquiry into the investigation and prosecution of an off-duty Winnipeg police officer convicted of dangerous driving, which caused the death of Crystal Taman, will not dispel that perception. Fellow officers can't remember how much Derek Harvey-Zenk was drinking, or if he was drinking at all. In any case, he had taken part in all-night partying. The police chief in nearby East St. Paul, where the collision took place, once worked with Mr. Harvey-Zenk. He can't remember telling his least experienced officer that Mr. Harvey-Zenk might be drunk. His officers failed to advise Mr. Harvey-Zenk of his Charter rights. In short, this inquiry invites an inference that the police cannot effectively investigate their colleagues.

In 1988, J.J. Harper, an aboriginal leader and Mr. McDougall's uncle, died after an encounter with a Winnipeg police officer, who was exonerated the next day. The Aboriginal Justice Inquiry was set in motion that year.

One of the AJI's recommendations was that where an incident involving a police officer resulted in the death or serious injury of a person, a special investigations unit or a team should investigate and report directly to the Minister of Justice. The investigating unit would not be staffed with any officers from the police department under investigation. Independent counsel - not a Crown attorney - would give advice on whether criminal charges should be laid.

Although an investigating police officer with the Winnipeg Police Service might reach an unbiased, accurate conclusion, the lack of independence will undermine it. The community and the officers themselves would benefit from a process that is seen to be fair. Implementation of the AJI recommendation for a special investigation team is long overdue.

No comments: