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Friday, November 26, 2010

OP-ED - How is it that people whose job it is to see justice done acted so unjustly?

November 26, 2010
James Morton, Ottawa Citizen

OTTAWA — Stacy Bonds, a young black makeup artist with no criminal history was arrested by Ottawa police, apparently for asking why police had stopped her for questioning. A video of her treatment in police custody is now available on the Citizen’s website, ottawacitizen.com.

The facts of Bonds’s treatment bear repeating. She was walking on Rideau Street in downtown Ottawa. She was neither drunk nor behaving inappropriately. The police stopped her and asked her name; she provided it.

After checking her name and finding nothing, the police told her she could go on her way. Bonds, as is her perfect right, asked why she had been stopped in the first place.

In response, the police arrested her for public intoxication and handcuffed her. As Ontario Court Judge Richard Lajoie later held, Bonds was not drunk. Once Bonds was taken to Ottawa Police headquarters, the judge noted that she was anything but “violent or aggressive.”

As can be clearly seen in the video, Bonds is much smaller than the police who confronted her.

In spite of the lack of violence or aggression, Bonds was assaulted by police. Judge Lajoie found she was the victim of “two extremely violent knee hits in the back ... and has her hair pulled back and her face shoved forward.”

Although it is hard to see exactly what happened afterwards because one police officer is blocking the video camera, it appears that a female police officer hurt her leg; she is seen limping in a later part of the video. Perhaps that injury explains what appears to be increasing hostility as the video continues. Bonds was forced to the ground with a riot shield — though she was “not resisting with hands flailing or feet flailing,” the judge said — and subjected to a strip search. The video shows four male officers and one female officer taking part in, or watching, as Bonds was forced to the ground.

Judge Lajoie severely criticized police actions at the station, saying it was “an indignity toward a human being and should be denounced.”

As a prosecutor and as a defence lawyer I have heard numerous complaints about police misconduct.

I have argued cases where an accused, charged with assaulting police, claims to have been the victim of police violence. Such claims have until now, I am afraid to admit, usually rung hollow with me. To be blunt, I did not believe them. I know that police have a difficult job. Police are often faced with violent, intoxicated individuals who have no regard for the truth and who will say whatever they think will get them out of trouble.

It is all too easy to assume that complaints about police brutality are false claims made to avoid the consequences of criminal wrongdoing. However, the Stacy Bonds case shows a Canadian being mistreated by police in the nation’s capital. Compounding the wrongful behaviour was the laying of charges for the apparent purpose of covering up misconduct.

How many “assault police” charges are merely trumped up for the purpose of concealing official wrongdoing? Put otherwise, absent a video recording, would Bonds have had a fair hearing?

The likely answer is depressing.

There is a malaise in the system. How could five police officers have taken part in the brutalization of Stacy Bonds and then allowed charges for “assault police” to go ahead? How could a Crown Attorney have failed to stay charges on seeing the video? More generally, how is it that people whose job it is to see justice done acted so unjustly? The system as a whole takes a beating when abuse occurs. Trust in the system is eroded.

To fix the problems the Bonds case uncovered will be difficult.

Yes, videotaping all police/citizen interactions will help and should be mandated. More broadly, a new professionalism is required in the justice system.

A free nation does not fear intimidation by police or the state. A free people can ask “why” when stopped by police. An honourable police force is not afraid to explain its actions to the people it is there to protect. Nelson Mandela rightly said, “I am not truly free if I am taking away someone else’s freedom, just as surely as I am not free when my freedom is taken from me. The oppressed and the oppressor alike are robbed of their humanity.” For the sake of all Canadians a case like that of Stacy Bonds must never be allowed to happen again.

James Morton is a Toronto lawyer and past president of the Ontario Bar Association. He teaches evidence at Osgoode Hall Law School of York University. The opinions expressed here are solely his own.

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