April 5, 2020

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Opinion

The crime: lack of transparency

Winnipeg police chief needs to rebuild trust after failing to reveal impaired-driving related charges against officers until he was compelled to 

THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods</p><p>Winnipeg Police Chief Danny Smyth.</p>

THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods

Winnipeg Police Chief Danny Smyth.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 5/12/2017 (852 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

For what it’s worth, veteran police officer Danny Smyth was my choice for new police chief before he was appointed by the Winnipeg Police Board last year.

Our professional relationship, such as it is, goes back nearly 30 years, and I’ve liked and admired him that long.

Given that history, I believed Smyth had lots of strengths, integrity being one of his most important assets. But last week, my trust in him — and the public’s — was put to the test in a way I hadn’t expected.

Under pressure from the media, Smyth held a hastily called news conference last Wednesday to confirm two officers faced drunk-driving charges following their arrests last month. Two days earlier, police had confirmed one of the cases after inquiries from media.

As it turned out, that second unreported drunk-driving case, in which Headingley RCMP arrested an off-duty city officer, took place on Nov. 20 — more than a week earlier than the first reported case. Smyth said it wasn’t service "protocol" to release criminal charges against anyone — including cops — until the accused appeared in court and the charges were formally laid, at which time names could be released.

However, that protocol wasn’t followed in late October, when police quickly released the name of an off-duty officer who was charged with impaired driving causing death in an alleged hit-and-run; a case that now forms the tragic backdrop to the series of other officer-related impaired driving arrests that occurred both before and after.

In his prepared statement last Wednesday, Smyth went out of his way to deny he hadn’t been transparent when his officers were arrested earlier in the month.

And then, just two days later, the chief was challenged on that statement.

On Friday, after reporters confronted him about more cases that had been uncovered, Smyth was compelled to confirm three more city cops had been arrested for drunk-driving-related offences going back to early this year. Again, those cases hadn’t been publicly disclosed to the media. In total, that made five off-duty cops facing impaired-driving related charges this year. But only one of those cases — the fatal-hit-and-run — was acknowledged by police before being prompted by the media.

So why hadn’t the police revealed those cases? Two of them — in June and February — went well beyond a time period when Smyth could claim charges hadn’t been formally laid. Smyth’s awkward answer followed.

"I grant that on this one, it looks like I failed to — it makes it look like I’m covering up, when I’m not really trying to," Smyth was quoted as saying.

The chief appeared to try to explain it by saying he thought the information had been released.

Really?

On Monday, when I tried to reach Smyth to probe further into that explanation, a police spokesperson emailed a response on his behalf.

"The chief has nothing more he can provide you with."

It’s hard to believe Smyth failed to notice there had been nothing in the news about the two cops charged with drunk driving earlier in the year. The chief and other senior members of the service and their advisers are briefed on such matters each morning at the senior management meeting, so he should have known the cases hadn’t been released by his media unit.

Which brings us to the problem that could be behind the lack of transparency — the police policy surrounding disclosures. Or, rather, the lack of one.

This week, the Free Press obtained a copy of a detailed, decade-old Winnipeg police policy and procedure document, dating back to Jack Ewatski’s time as chief. The policy, titled "Members charged," detailed when and how the service was supposed to release news to the media when police officers are criminally charged.

The word "immediately" stood out.

I emailed the police service a copy of the policy, along with a question asking about its current status. Was it revised? And if a current policy exists in written form, could the police service forward it in the spirit of transparency? The police service responded by pointing out the document I had obtained was years out of date.

That wasn’t a surprise. But the rest of the emailed answer was.

"The current policy regarding members facing charges directs the flow of information internally, and does not detail what is to be done with the release of that information publicly."

So there you have it. Once upon a crime, police had a detailed policy on how and when to disclose information to the media on the arrest and charging of cops. And now they don’t.

Why not?

A former senior officer I spoke with suggested it may have been because the Winnipeg Police Association lobbied to have the policy dropped.

"Their fallback," he said, referring to the police union, "was always, ‘don’t release.’"

Smyth had no choice but to release the news about that fatal hit-and-run. But does that lack of a formal policy — and the line of internal responsibility and accountability that would go with it — explain why the police service has been negligent in disclosing the number of cops who have been arrested this year?

Maybe in part. But, as the leader of the service and guardian of the public trust, Danny Smyth should have had a policy in place.

And the Winnipeg Police Board — which is responsible for the chief’s conduct, and overall police policy and direction — needs to make sure he does.

They should have some questions for Smyth — and he’ll need to have some answers — at their next public meeting. Meanwhile, I had a question for board chairman David Asper: does he still have full confidence in the Smyth?

The board, he responded, "has full confidence in the chief."

If only I could still say the same.

gordon.sinclair@freepress.mb.ca

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