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No place for 'shifters' in modern-day policing

WAYNE GLOWACKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Jasmine Kabestra-Savage writes a message on the side of the Sutherland Hotel Friday morning in memory of her friend Cody Severight, who was killed Tuesday while crossing Main Street.</p></p>


Jasmine Kabestra-Savage writes a message on the side of the Sutherland Hotel Friday morning in memory of her friend Cody Severight, who was killed Tuesday while crossing Main Street.

Winnipeg police Chief Danny Smyth still doesn’t seem to get it, and neither do some of his officers.

"This was an unexpected tragedy," Smyth said this week, reading from a prepared statement, a day after one of his constables was charged with impaired driving causing death and leaving the scene of an accident.

No it wasn’t.

The alleged involvement of an off-duty officer in a drinking-related fatal hit-and-run shouldn’t come as a surprise to a police chief who knows all about the cop subculture of shift-ending drinking parties, such as the one in 2005 that led to another off-duty cop rear-ending a car stopped at a red light. The name of the driver the cop killed — Crystal Taman — became synonymous with the provincial inquiry that led to the creation of the Independent Investigations Unit now in charge of this week’s "unexpected" case.

What happened this week was déjà vu for Robert Taman, Crystal’s widower.

"The Winnipeg police, all police, should know better than this," he told the Free Press. "There’s certainly been enough trauma in the past for them to understand that what they’re doing is wrong."

Apparently not.

Symth alluded to the post-work drinking in the statement that followed the arrest of 34-year-old Const. Justin Holz, who the police chief suggested had been doing just that with other officers after he reportedly left the downtown HQ around happy hour. Less than four hours later, around 8 p.m., 23-year-old Cody Severight was struck and killed on Main Street north of Higgins Avenue.

"People go for drinks after work," Smyth said at the news conference. "That’s not an uncommon thing."

No, but what’s less common is the ritualistic way police officers have been doing it for as long as any of them can remember. Back in the early ’70s, one retired officer recalled this week, he and other rookies would be dispatched to buy tables full of draught before their shifts ended and the bar closed. That way, as long as the beer was poured before midnight, the cops would drink until the last of the frothy glasses were empty.

Shifters, as they’re known — or "choir practice," as former L.A. cop-turned-novelist Joseph Wambaugh immortalized police partying in his 1975 novel, The Choir Boys — remain entrenched in police culture. Granted, there are clusters of workers from every sort of job who gather occasionally for a drink.

And, yes, police, because of the nature of their work, may feel more need and have more opportunity than most to get together to self-medicate.

A recent survey published in the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry found that first responders are far more prone to develop mental health disorders than the general population.

Not surprising, perhaps, until the rate of difference is considered; nearly 45 per cent for first responders, compared with 10 per cent of the general population.

That doesn’t excuse the recent case — and a not uncommon one, according to my police source — of cops in the North End whose supervisor allowed them to use their banked overtime to leave work hours early so they could go drinking at a Garden City bar.

Nor does it excuse the driving behaviour last year of another young off-duty police officer who, while driving 127 km/h on an icy North Kildonan residential street at 3:20 a.m., clear-cut his way through three front yards and into a parked van. His passenger, another off-duty police officer, was admittedly drunk, but the driver claimed he hadn’t had a drink since dinner.

It was only after the snow melted that a woman discovered two half-full liquor bottles on her front lawn — directly across the street from where the cop’s car crashed. Police who arrived at the scene that early morning didn’t administer a breathalyzer to the driver. And although an independent investigation led to a criminal charge of dangerous driving, it was plea-bargained down to a highway traffic offence.

So, what makes cops think they can get away with reckless behaviour?

There was a day when cops in two-officer cars who came upon a brother officer weaving down the road would drive him and his vehicle home. And if someone thinks your buddies always have your back, where’s the risk in speeding and driving drunk?

Even if there is a sense of immunity among today’s officers, what I don’t get is why a police officer’s buddies wouldn’t have his back before he got into his vehicle after having too many drinks. Where was the designated driver or the call for a cab on Tuesday night?

History suggests this wasn’t an unexpected tragedy.

What’s important is for Smyth to do what is expected of him by sending a message to the rank and file that shifters don’t have a place in today’s Winnipeg Police Service and that drinking and driving won’t be tolerated by the WPS.

Although, in a veiled way, Smyth already may have sent a message.

"This officer will be held accountable for his actions," Smyth said.

That sounded like a pledge that, no matter the outcome of the criminal charges, the chief has decided Holz has seen his last shift.

That shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone, least of all his fellow officers.


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Updated on Saturday, October 14, 2017 at 7:41 AM CDT: Photo added.

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