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Trust me: Racism plays no role in homicide investigations

Blog of the week: The Power of Words

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ONE of the things I find most interesting about blogging is you never really know who is reading your posts.

As a new blogger, I was surprised at how quickly a message can spread over the information highway. Such was the case regarding a blog I wrote on the topic of Manitoba's murdered and missing women.

The title was "Time to Take Ownership" and the content ranged from a Project Devote press conference, to victim-causation factors, to lack of ownership among First Nations leaders and their demands for an inquiry.

Shortly after publishing the post, I was contacted by APTN investigative reporter Kathleen Martens: "I've been reading your blog posts with interest on the MMW (murdered and missing women) and Project Devote, also the recent arrest of Shawn Lamb.

"I am researching a story to run this fall on the M+M Aboriginal Women and, from what I read of your writing, you would be a valuable addition to the piece."

My initial reaction was lukewarm. I enjoy the written word and much prefer it over on-camera interviews. When you write, you have the opportunity and time to do substantial editing before putting your ideas "out there." Having vast experience conducting on-camera suspect interrogations, I know how unforgiving the video camera is. Once a thought passes your lips, you no longer own it.

Nevertheless, I agreed to answer questions during a telephone pre-interview to allow the reporter an opportunity to assess what, if any, contribution I might make to her story.

One of the issues for discussion revolved around the common belief in the aboriginal community that racism in the Winnipeg Police Service contributes to the marginalization of aboriginal murder victims and an inferior investigative effort. In plain English: "the cops don't care when Indians get murdered."

The sentiments were no surprise to me. I know these feelings have existed in the aboriginal community for a very long time. I was exposed to them as a uniform street cop and as an investigator in the homicide unit.

The feelings of hostility and mistrust were present long before I started with the WPS in January 1987 and were only exacerbated by the tragic shooting of John Joseph Harper in March 1988.

The question about racism is one I feel I am uniquely qualified to answer -- specifically regarding the question of whether racism contributes to investigative apathy regarding aboriginal homicide victims.

Uniquely qualified because of a number of factors, which include the fact that in total, I worked as an investigator in the WPS homicide unit for almost eight years. Uniquely qualified because during my career, I worked on more than 200 murder cases.

Uniquely qualified because, as a direct descendant of African American slaves, I suffered incidents of racism during the early years of my childhood and as a result, have heightened awareness and sensitivity regarding racist attitudes.

I would also like to think that my word comes with a very high degree of credibility. After all, it was my integrity that cost me my beloved career in law enforcement, forced out of my job as homicide-unit supervisor and forced to leave my profession long before intellectually arriving at that crossroad. The conflict with senior police management left me feeling anger and resentment toward the leaders of the police service.

If ever there was a perfect whistleblower scenario, I am it -- a person with absolutely no desire or inclination to whitewash WPS management's dirty laundry.

Disappointing to many I am sure, but there is no story here.

Upon deeper reflection, I realized it was my responsibility to do the interview and set the record straight.

It would be nice if people in the aboriginal community would take me at my word, but I realize there are more than a few skeptics out there. So I will ask you to remain open-minded while I appeal to your common sense and ability to reason.

I recently completed a statistical analysis of homicide data and found between 1999 and 2011, the WPS homicide unit achieved a remarkable solved rate of almost 90 per cent. Out of 318 reported murders, 34 remain unsolved. Aboriginal women and men are represented in these numbers in both solved and unsolved cases -- many would suggest overrepresented.

If you want to buy into the racist perceptions, then you have to completely discount the fact that the WPS homicide unit has solved a significant number of murders related to aboriginal victims, both male and female.

The question that has to be asked is: How do you disregard the success related to the solved cases and then suggest racism contributed to the unsolved ones? The answer is: You can't. It's not fair, it's not true and it's offensive to the people who are tasked with this extremely difficult work.

The truth is, race and/or racism never contributed to any homicide case I ever worked on. Homicide investigators with the WPS are some of the most highly motivated, committed, successful police officers in the country. These investigators do not judge murder victims by factors that include race, nor do they judge them by their lifestyles. It matters not if they were sex trade workers, gangbangers, drug dealers or even sex offenders.

WPS homicide investigators operate under the steadfast belief that no one has the right to take another human's life.

WPS homicide investigators have one, and only one, true motivation: Solve the crime.

That was the culture that existed during my tenure in the unit, and I believe that same culture exists there today.

The statistics support my assertions. You don't have to believe what I say -- just look at the numbers.

Despite my reservations, I met with Martens and shared my views on camera in the quiet, peaceful surroundings of Assiniboine Park.

I hope by sharing the truth I might play a small role in helping to inspire more trust, hope and healing between members of the WPS and the members of our aboriginal community.

Time will tell; the story airs some time in November.


James Jewell retired from the Winnipeg Police Service after a 25-year career. Follow his blog at .

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 14, 2012 A10

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