Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Clunis reflects on response time to Gibson family tragedy: 'Yes, there was a delay'

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The Winnipeg Police Service, and its chief constable, returned Wednesday to a time and place they had steadfastly refused to ever revisit.

The tragic circumstances that began on the morning of July 24, with a 911 call from a mother suffering from postpartum depression who had just drowned her three-month-old son and two-year-old daughter in the upstairs bathroom. And, who, by the time police arrived, had already wandered away in her white tank top and floral pajama bottoms to drown herself in the nearby Assiniboine River.

But what ultimately compelled police to revisit an event that shocked the city was an unacknowledged flaw in their initial response to the young family's home at 3 Coleridge Park Dr. It wasn't that the first officers on scene -- one male and one female -- were too slow in responding. They arrived five minutes after being dispatched just after 8 a.m, according to a WPS timeline supplied to the Free Press Wednesday. The problem was a 26-minute delay between the time the first two officers pulled up and the time the children's bodies were finally discovered.

That, and the fact it was the children's grandmother -- not police -- who located them.

It was the same basic story -- without the originally denied minute-by-minute detail -- Free Press reporter Mike McIntrye reported last August and police refused to confirm or comment on, even as late as last month after the province's chief medical officer, Dr. Thambirajah Balachandra, decided not to call an inquest that would have disclosed the police service's mistakes at the scene.

Finally this week, after being pressed again for a comment, police Chief Devon Clunis granted a one-on-one videotaped interview with the Free Press.

"Yes, there was a delay," Clunis acknowledged near the end of the interview. "Certainly, we should have found the children."

He wasn't attaching blame, nor should he.

But asked whether the 26-minute delay was critical -- if the children's lives might have been saved if police had discovered them earlier -- Clunis said that was a fair question.

"But there's nothing from the (medical examiner's) report that could indicate that any actions by the WPS played any part in the ultimate tragic outcome," Clunis said.

Then he added this: "So, no, we can't really say with any type of certainty around that question."

The chief medical examiner was asked the same question and others Wednesday. He declined to answer.

Clunis didn't want to get into detail, either. He said it was his information the arriving officers had done an initial search but he declined to say if the upstairs bathroom, or even the upstairs, had been searched.

In any event, he acknowledged the department had learned lessons from the tragedy.

Whatever was or wasn't done, it's apparent from the redacted call history timeline police initially responded with four cars -- and after the children were located and the search began for their 32-year-old mother Lisa Gibson, with a total of 17 police units.

It's also apparent fellow officers quickly recognized the need to look after the emotional well-being of the first two officers on scene. Within 25 minutes of the children's bodies being located, the police service's wellness officer had been alerted.

Less than two minutes later, police learned from paramedics both children had died. That was only about 50 minutes after Lisa Gibson used her cellphone to summon police to where she had left her lifeless little ones for them to find.

The news of what happened jolted every corner of the city that day, and the aftershocks continued for weeks.

Police, sensitive to the potential for aftershock, quickly dispatched victims' services officers to go door-to-door in the traumatized neighbourhood.

Months later, the healing for the family, and the officers involved, goes on. Clunis said in anticipation of the interview, he spoke Tuesday with the two officers most directly involved. That caring, tender touch is something that comes naturally to the former police service chaplain.

Police also recently spoke with Brian Gibson, the husband of Lisa and father of Anna and infant Nicholas. Brian was afraid the media would try to speak with him once the story was in print again.

Before we sat down in the police media room for the formal interview, Clunis told me there were those who didn't want him to do the interview.

It was obvious by the delay in responding to my request for an interview -- it took two weeks -- and by what he said before the interview began, and later, that Clunis was reluctant to revisit an event that had deeply affected the family, the police service and the community at large.

And he said as much.

"I really don't want to open up wounds that have already started to heal," Clunis told me. "But I also recognized it was important... from a media perspective, that we had to address this issue."

It's not because it's important to the media, though. It's because it's in the public interest for police to be transparent. Something Clunis has said he is. And now has shown it.

Winnipeg's police chief has shown something else, too. That he has the courage to do what's right for the public and the police service as a whole.

Even if it doesn't necessarily feel right. I applaud him. We all should.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 5, 2013 B1

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