Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

'Gating' opens door to roomful of policing woes

Union president suggests some solutions

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It was only a few years ago that the great U.S. state of Hawaii acknowledged a serious problem with outstanding arrest warrants.

Nearly 70,000 of them remained unserved, either gathering dust in computer databases or in hard copy on shelves in government buildings.

Aside from the blemish this placed on the administration of justice, officials estimated the backlog was costing the state about $20 million a year in unpaid fines and fees.

The response from government was relatively swift and proactive. A multi-agency task force was called to address systemic gaps causing the problem.

Parole officials, police, judges, members of the bar and others met repeatedly hoping to devise new ways to allow law enforcement to become more efficient.

A new, centralized state warrant database was rolled out as one measure. It was lauded after its first year of existence for helping reduce backlogs by 22 per cent, or 15,000 warrants.

But the problem didn't end. By 2011, reports indicate Hawaii's unserved-warrant problems got worse, not better.

Manitoba is no stranger to arrest-warrant backlogs. For years now, estimates of unexecuted warrants have ranged from roughly 20,000 to a whopping 30,000. Many times, suspects on warrants in the Canadian Police Information Centre (CPIC) computer system will have more than one outstanding tag pending.

The issue came to a head recently after a series of Free Press articles on "gating," which defence lawyers described as a police tactic in which they delay executing outstanding warrants on people already in jail, only to tag them once they get out.

Blowback from these reports resulted in Winnipeg Police Service Chief Devon Clunis issuing a strongly worded statement Monday.

The chief essentially defended gating as necessary because police are routinely stretched thin.

The process of arresting people already in custody is complex and time-consuming, Clunis said, and it's not right if today's calls for police service wait in the queue because officers are tied up dealing with yesterday's -- or last year's -- arrest warrants.

Equally interesting, however, was Clunis's comments on the state of the system today.

"The resources within our system are inadequate to meet the demand," he said. "Many processes within the justice system are arguably antiquated, inefficient and challenging. Reform is needed." But what would that reform look like?

I tried to ask Clunis, but he declined an interview on Tuesday. "The chief will be speaking with the respective stakeholders regarding this topic," a spokeswoman told me.

But that's not to say others don't have thoughts on reforms. One of them was Mike Sutherland, the president of the Winnipeg Police Association.

Sutherland wasn't shy about expressing possible solutions, which ranged from correctional officers, many with peace-officer status, playing a role in executing old warrants, to suspects themselves taking accountability to ensure they're free and clear when they leave jail. It's a complex issue.

But in talking at length with Sutherland, a police officer of 23 years' experience, I came to see the backlogged-warrants problem is just a tiny drop in the bucket of issues we must confront.

"Mind-boggling" paperwork and report-writing demands take officers away from fighting crime for hours on end, he explained.

Affidavits for search or apprehension warrants used to be granted with a minimum of fuss. Now, the rigour required on an Information to Obtain can sometimes involve investigators producing binders of documentation just to get a boot in a suspect's door.

Evidence-gathering must be near-perfect at all times or it will face major challenges and possible exclusion at trial.

"The system has gotten really, really complex," Sutherland said.

Police today are expected to meet the increasing workload, legal and disclosure obligations at all times or face the repercussion of lost cases and victims denied their measure of justice. "Work gets wasted when individuals walk," Sutherland said.

I have no reason to doubt Clunis and other justice stakeholders will find a palatable fix to the problem of backlogged warrants at some point.

But I have to wonder if that effort might just be a distraction from the bigger picture we should really be scrutinizing: that the system's expectation of police is out of whack.

The whole problem with gating is it appears to conflict with a suspect's right to procedural fairness from the justice system. I suspect if we eased some of today's considerable demands on police time, it would go a long way to allaying those concerns. Officers would have time to execute warrants without controversy about the process.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 13, 2014 A6

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