Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Veil of secrecy encourages misinformation

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THE verdicts always seem to come quick in the court of public opinion.

But Manitoba RCMP aren't doing themselves any favours in that regard by refusing to answer even the most basic of questions surrounding Sunday's shooting of a young native man in Norway House.

Why were they confronting him? Did he have any weapons? How many shots were fired? How many hit the man? Where was he struck? How many officers were at the scene? How many opened fire? Were other options, such as a Taser, deployed or considered?

I understand the need to tread carefully, given the sensitive nature of this case. But there are ways to do that and still offer up some basic, necessary information.

Take, for example, the recent shooting by Winnipeg police of a robbery suspect. The incident, which occurred last month, was reported in a news release in which police made it clear they were in the process of trying to stop a crime in progress and the suspect refused an order to drop a weapon and came towards police.

It wasn't a lot of detail, but it at least put the incident in some perspective. And it certainly limited the public frenzy from running rampant.

That's certainly not the case here.

While the matter will eventually be sorted out by justice officials, the challenges presented in this case go well beyond the courtroom and into the community. And they threaten to tear open old wounds in this province.

The little we do know about what happened -- gleaned through witness reports, which can be notoriously untrustworthy and biased -- certainly doesn't paint a pretty picture.

Those in Norway House speak of an unarmed man, his hands raised in the air and posing no apparent threat, being gunned down while hundreds of witnesses, many of them children, look on.

If true, that is one damning indictment of the RCMP.

The Free Press has been able to obtain other details through sources and court records, most notably that the man who was shot is now facing a handful of serious criminal charges and also has a notorious history with the justice system.

That all may have played a role in how police handled the situation Sunday. But like everything surrounding this case, it is all speculation.

It's no secret there is a history of poor relations in Manitoba between police and aboriginal communities. That is likely playing a role, as perhaps RCMP are afraid of saying anything that might make the situation worse. Sources tell me they believe the RCMP officer who fired is white, and there are those within Norway House who are suggesting race had something to do with this.

Of course, it would be helpful to know more about the officer who pulled the trigger, specifically what kind of experience and training he had. Inexperienced officers are often deployed to remote locales to start their careers, but we have no idea whether that was the case here because details aren't being released.

One of the problems with this type of veil of secrecy is it actually encourages the spread of misinformation.

Just look at the initial reaction to the shooting, which has been swift on social media. It can pretty much be divided into two camps: those who have already declared the RCMP are guilty of some wrongdoing here, and those who feel this was completely justified and the shooting victim had it coming.

It could be years before the truth is known. But regardless of the outcome, the damage may already have been done.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 22, 2014 A3

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