Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Process invites cynicism

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In 1988, Winnipeg police Const. Robert Cross shot and killed native leader John Joseph Harper, an innocent man in the wrong place at the wrong time. The officer was cleared of any wrongdoing the very next day, a snap decision that sparked the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry and forever changed aboriginal-police relations in the city.

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Four years ago, police shot and killed Craig McDougall, a native man, following an incident outside a Simcoe Street home, leading to allegations it was an unjustified homicide sparked by racism. This time, police promised a full and independent investigation, but, four years later, the community is still waiting for the results of that investigation.

Are the police over-compensating for their rush to judgment in the past, or does it take four years (and counting) to conduct a relatively straightforward investigation?

The McDougall shooting is not a whodunit; it's a whatwasit. Police know, for example, who fired the fatal shot and there were several eyewitnesses, although they disagreed on whether the victim was holding a knife or a cellphone in his hand. Police say it was a knife and he was shot after refusing to put it down.

The results of the police investigation were turned over to an another police agency for review, which explains at least some of the delay. The outside agency completed its review in March, but Winnipeg police are doing more work before forwarding it to Manitoba Justice for a final review. If no criminal charges are laid against police, then the case will be the subject of a provincial inquest, standard practice when police are involved in a fatal shooting.

From an aboriginal perspective, however, the process has been flawed from the beginning.

The day after the shooting, a police spokesperson unintentionally exonerated the shooter by saying police don't fire their weapons unless it's absolutely necessary. Mayor Sam Katz then accused aboriginal leaders of prejudging the case, but he had no problem with the initial exoneration by a police spokesperson.

The most significant problem, however, is the fact police conducted both the internal and external investigations, and many aboriginals do not trust them. If the current process exonerates the officer involved in the shooting, it may be entirely correct, but still rejected by aboriginals as garbage in, garbage out.

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If the verdict is not accepted, the whole point of the lengthy investigations will have served no useful purpose, other than to reinforce the hostile attitude of aboriginals.

Doubts about the ability of police to investigate themselves were reinforced following an inquiry four years ago into the death of Crystal Taman in a motor-vehicle accident involving a police officer.

The internal investigation was found to be seriously flawed because investigators were reluctant or unable to conduct a thorough probe into the conduct of one of their own. It left a black mark over the police that lingers still. Indeed, the aboriginal leaders raised it while they demanded a full and impartial probe in the McDougall homicide.

The Taman inquiry was called because the case raised issues of public trust in the justice system. It ended up showing public skepticism about the ability of police to self-regulate is justified.

In the aftermath of the Taman probe, the NDP government promised to introduce a new police commission and a special investigations unit to investigate serious complaints against police. Other provinces have employed several models, but for some reason Manitoba has had difficulty getting the ball rolling.

The province and city have resisted the trend across Canada for independent reviews of police actions for decades, but eventually a new process will be adopted here. It's critical, however, that its impartiality and integrity be beyond reproach. If not, the cynicism and mistrust will persist.

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

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 4, 2012 A14


Updated on Saturday, August 4, 2012 at 8:49 AM CDT: adds illustrations, corrects typo

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