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Monday, July 20, 2009

Constable admits errors in report on Hyde death

July 20, 2009
Oliver Moore, Globe and Mail

The unblinking eye of a surveillance camera provided crucial perspective again Monday at an inquiry into the treatment of a mentally ill man who died in custody, prompting another police witness to admit part of his report on the incident had been wrong.

Howard Hyde, who was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and had not been taking his medication, died in jail the day after a fracas with Halifax Regional Police that involved being tasered twice. The inquiry into his death in November of 2007 heard yesterday the final testimony from the last of the officers involved in the first part of that struggle.

In a pattern that has become familiar through 10 days of testimony, Kevin MacDonald, a lawyer for Mr. Hyde's sister and her husband, was able to use surveillance footage from police headquarters to contradict the officer's account.

Mr. MacDonald said Constable Ben Mitchell had written in a report shortly after the incident that Mr. Hyde ignored several demands to comply with police. Shown the video, the officer acknowledged he'd been wrong. “After watching that I agree that's not the case,” he testified. “That's what I believed to be true.”

Constable Mitchell, who noted that he did not have the benefit of refreshing his memory with the video before doing his report, rejected Mr. MacDonald's suggestion that he had completed the paperwork in such a way as to justify the use of force.

Use of the videos has been among the most hotly debated issues at the inquiry.

Sandra MacPherson-Duncan, a lawyer for the police, has several times raised the concern that audio from the surveillance camera footage has been enhanced to remove background noise. This makes it unrepresentative of what the human ear would have heard at the time, she has argued.

But Mr. MacDonald said the video provides crucial evidence of what happened that night.

Mr. Hyde, had he survived, would have had great difficulty fending off charges of assaulting the police without the camera acting as a silent witness, the lawyer said.

“If the video did not exist … it would be a struggle for Mr. Hyde to defend against those four police witnesses, all saying what they're saying in those reports and notes,” Mr. MacDonald told reporters last week.

“Because it would be Mr. Hyde, who we know was not well mentally, defending himself against those charges.”

Provincial Court Judge Anne Derrick, who is presiding, has rejected applications to post the videos online, noting that they could be manipulated and that they need to be accompanied by witness testimony to be viewed in their proper context. They have been screened many times during the proceedings, though, and have been visible to people tuning in at www.hydeinquiry.ca.

Those screenings have at times revealed inaccuracies in notes or statements of those present during the struggle. All have denied the suggestion they were lying to justify their actions.

Former special constable Shannon Coombs, who witnessed the struggle but did not participate, wrote in her notes after the incident that Mr. Hyde ignored an order to “get down.” The video actually shows an officer shouting “get him down.”

That's an instruction to colleagues, Mr. MacDonald pointed out, not a demand for prisoner compliance.

“Yes, there is a major difference between what I wrote down I heard and what is in the video,” Ms. Coombs acknowledged last week.

Also last week, the inquiry heard that Constable Jonathan Edwards, the officer who arrested Mr. Hyde for allegedly assaulting his wife, told RCMP investigators after the prisoner's death that Mr. Hyde was warned he would be tasered and showed no concern about the weapon.

The video shows no such warning. In fact, the officer who tasered Mr. Hyde later testified that he deliberately did not warn the struggling man, to preserve the element of surprise.

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