Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Police silence deafening

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The Winnipeg Police Service is being characteristically secretive about the events last week that led to the death of a troubled 53-year-old man facing eviction from the only home he knew. Andrew Baryluk had told a judge in a court dispute last month over his residence at the former family home that he intended to die in the house. The WPS homicide unit is now investigating what happened when officers fired on the house.

Along with evidence from the scene, an autopsy has been conducted. But police refuse to release even basic details of the unfortunate event, including how Mr. Baryluk died -- from a police bullet or self-inflicted gun shot or something else?

The cone of silence is disturbing in a city where there has long been a justified demand for an outside agency to take over investigations surrounding police conduct, wrongdoing or involvement in such affairs. It highlights the appearance of a conflict abundantly apparent to most people -- how can the WPS expect citizens to accept it is in the best position to investigate its own?

The conflict was brought into high relief in the inquiry into the death of Crystal Taman, whose vehicle was rear-ended at a stop light in 2005 by an off-duty police officer driving home from an after-hours party with colleagues. A 2008 inquiry found that Derek Harvey-Zenk's fellow officers could not remember simple details of their night of drinking, investigation at the site was botched by the East St. Paul police detachment and the WPS's own internal investigation was so poorly handled as to beggar the patience of the most credulous citizen. It defied the very word "investigation."

From that inquiry came the call for a civilian-led investigations unit, similar to those operating for years in other provinces. Finally, in 2013, an executive director was hired for Manitoba's Independent Investigation Unit. Yet, the unit remains in its structural phase, and is not expected to be in operation until next March.

It has all taken too long. But in its absence, of course, Attorney General Andrew Swan could have decided that such investigations be handed to another police force -- the RCMP, for example.

Earlier this year, Mr. Swan revealed the IIU's investigators would be seconded from police forces, at least initially. He ought to rethink that decision. Hiring former officers at least provides some separation from the very officers such a unit would be investigating. But this Manitoba agency ought to hire civilian investigators as well, following the proven examples in other provinces. To be true to its mandate, front-line investigators must be beyond the perception of conflict.

A recent inquiry into the fatal police shooting last year of Sammy Yatim in Toronto concluded police response to incidents ought to strive for resolution without a death. It is a tall order, given the often volatile, unpredictable nature of the circumstances that lead individuals into standoff conflicts with police, sometimes with abiding threat to other innocent parties.

But the principle is sound: it requires police in incidents where an individual's mental state is in question to operate on the belief the person has desperately lost control; a glimmer of hope for a return of control, then, for calm amid turmoil can be key to a peaceful resolution.

The de-escalation of tumult, winning the trust of troubled individuals demands skilled intervention. That is why former Supreme Court justice Frank Iacobucci, in the Yatim inquiry report, recommended all officers have special training in mental health. Manitoba's police officers should have such training, too.

Manitoba's police commission and municipal police boards ought to work to make that training mandatory. And Mr. Swan must ensure there is no further delay to getting the Independent Investigation Unit up and running.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 6, 2014 A8

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