March 20, 2019

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'Blue wall' separates police watchdog from the facts

Free Press probe reveals long list of tactics blocking IIU's work

For nearly 3 1/2 years, Manitoba’s law enforcement watchdog has dealt with reluctant and unco-operative witnesses, a police department that’s kept criminal accusations hidden and repeated breaches of legislation that establishes guidelines for how cops must conduct themselves.

Two cases unearthed during a Free Press investigation, however, reveal conduct more troubling, crossing the line into behaviour that undermines the effectiveness of police oversight in this city and raises questions about how entrenched the culture of the "blue wall" remains.

In one case, a member of the Winnipeg Police Service Auxiliary Force Cadets was fed a report for review — written by the police officer at the centre of an Independent Investigation Unit of Manitoba probe — before sitting down for an interview with investigators.

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For nearly 3 1/2 years, Manitoba’s law enforcement watchdog has dealt with reluctant and unco-operative witnesses, a police department that’s kept criminal accusations hidden and repeated breaches of legislation that establishes guidelines for how cops must conduct themselves.

Two cases unearthed during a Free Press investigation, however, reveal conduct more troubling, crossing the line into behaviour that undermines the effectiveness of police oversight in this city and raises questions about how entrenched the culture of the "blue wall" remains.

In one case, a member of the Winnipeg Police Service Auxiliary Force Cadets was fed a report for review — written by the police officer at the centre of an Independent Investigation Unit of Manitoba probe — before sitting down for an interview with investigators.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

During an unrelated investigation into a police-involved shooting, another WPS officer — again, at the centre of the case — was found to have discussed the incident with witness officers before being interviewed.

Such conduct can taint investigations and undermine the public’s faith in the effectiveness of civilian-led police oversight, say experts interviewed for this project.

When caught contravening clearly defined rules in the Police Services Act, these officers faced no apparent repercussions. The IIU took no action, apart from alerting the WPS.

After filing eight freedom of information requests that produced hundreds of pages of IIU documents and correspondence, the Free Press discovered a litany of roadblocks thrown up by police, both individually and institutionally, preventing the agency from fulfilling its mandate.

This is the second of a four-part series detailing those revelations.


On March 28, 2017, more than 21 months after the IIU began operations, civilian director Zane Tessler wrote to WPS Chief Danny Smyth to announce his unit had closed another investigation and that no charges would be laid.

In the letter, he also mentioned a secondary matter that had come up, concerning a cadet who had been named as a witness officer. During an interview with the IIU, it was revealed the cadet had obtained and reviewed the subject officer’s written report.

Zane Tessler

To: Police Chief Danny Smyth

Re: IIU File #2016-038 (Affected Person REDACTED)

Date: March 28, 2017

...The cadet was not party to the creation of this incident report; it was prepared solely by the subject officer the same evening as the incident — the cadet had already gone home. The cadet was relying on the incident report to assist in (their) recollection of events.

Read the full email

In an IIU investigation, a subject officer is an individual who could face criminal charges. In this case, the subject officer did not agree to an interview, but turned over their written report, the same one reviewed by the cadet.

Tessler went on to explain the account given by the cadet "closely mirrored" what had been written in the subject officer's report. He also said evidence suggested the cadet would not have been able to "see the subject officer’s actions as described in (their) interview, unless (their) recollections were enhanced by the incident report."

Tessler said he wasn’t attributing any ill will to either the subject officer or the cadet, adding other evidence seemed to corroborate the account.

"I am not suggesting that the cadet was acting in bad faith when (reviewing) the subject officer’s report. I am not suggesting that (the cadet) was intent on bolstering the subject officer’s situation," he wrote.

The Free Press spoke to two retired police officers — both of whom requested anonymity — to get their take on the case. Both suggested that in the aftermath of events that will be scrutinized, this sort of co-operation among officers is common.

The Police Services Act, the legislation governing Manitoba law enforcement, says police chiefs are responsible for limiting contact between officers after such events to whatever extent possible in order to protect the integrity of IIU investigations.

"They’re bound to talk to one another. I don’t know how you’ll ever stop that. They compare notes. Sometimes notes are made up after the fact. I know for a fact that notes are made up after," one retired cop said.

"If there’s an event, then they’ll get together and say, ‘All right, this is what we’re going to say.’"

Tessler’s dismissal of the cadet’s behaviour as benign drew sharp criticism from Robert Taman, an original member of the Manitoba Police Commission, which helped guide the creation of the IIU. He's also the widower of Crystal Taman.

In 2005, his wife, a 40-year-old mother of three, was killed by an off-duty WPS officer driving drunk. The police investigation into the incident was botched, resulting in a sentence of two years conditional house arrest that many observers dismissed as a slap on the wrist.

Robert Taman

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Robert Taman

Taman said the cadet’s conduct was a continuation of the same behind-the-scenes manoeuvring that occurred during the investigation into the fatal early morning collision. He added that the IIU was built to put an end to those practices, not excuse them.

"It goes to show you that some things never change. That’s exactly what took place in East St. Paul the day Crystal was killed," he said. "It was exactly that, sharing notes, making sure it was all on the up and up.

"The cadet would have to know. The minute you’d look at that (report) you’d say, ‘Oh, I’m being told what to say.’"

Those comments were echoed by the second retired police officer who spoke to the Free Press, who said it was a clear attempt to coach the cadet on what to tell IIU investigators.

"That was all organized," he said. "The report doesn’t just fall in this kid’s lap. It’s given to him. The cadet is brand-new. He wants to work for the force. They’re saying, ‘This is how we do things.'"

Tessler outlined a similar occurrence in another letter to Smyth dated March 15, 2018.

Once again, the civilian director informed the chief an investigation had been closed and no charges would be pursued. This time the focus was on a police-involved shooting.

"A collateral matter arose from the subject officer’s interview with IIU investigators," Tessler wrote. "During the interview, when the subject officer was answering questions posed to him, he openly admitted that he had discussed the shooting incident with other witness officers prior to his interview with IIU investigators."

The WPS declined a request to interview Smyth. Tessler also declined an interview request, but the IIU agreed to provide written answers to written questions from the Free Press.

An IIU spokeswoman said in this case, Tessler had considered the discussion of the shooting "innocent in nature."

She would not speculate on how widespread the practice is, or why it continues.

"When the IIU recognizes there is an area of concern, (the) IIU brings it to the attention of the police agency to ensure their members are aware and comply with their legal obligations," she wrote.

One of the retired police officers described the pervasive "blue wall" culture during his time on the force.

"These cops go to work, especially in the North End, and deal with absolute s—t every night. Your only concern is making sure you go home to your wife and kids," he said. "You do that over and over and over and soon you become really negative. You get mad. And it’s wrong, but you know, some night some guy starts mouthing off to you and you straighten him out.

"Then somebody comes in and complains. The sergeant is trying to protect his men. So they think, ‘We can cover this up; the guy probably deserved a punch in the face.’ It’s wrong, but that’s how it goes."

ryan.thorpe@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @rk_thorpe

Ryan Thorpe

Ryan Thorpe
Reporter

Ryan Thorpe likes the pace of daily news, the feeling of a broadsheet in his hands and the stress of never-ending deadlines hanging over his head.

Read full biography

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