Thursday, November 10, 2005

Ottawa Police: the beat goes on

To Serve and Protect

Watch this video (red icon two paragraphs down).

The boy and girl in blue depicted here have just been cleared of any wrongdoing by an "internal investigation" by the Ottawa Police, and Chief Vincent Bevan says they did no wrong. Meanwhile the police union is planning to sue the beating victim, and his lawyer, for speaking out.

Has our town gone mad?

Take a close look at the video. Pay special attention to the body language of the victim. He has just been wakened by the police officer on the left, after dozing off at his table. He proceeds to clean his table, and take a swig of his coffee, and then walks over to the counter and gets into a conversation with the officer. His shoulders are down and he appears relaxed. At no time has he staggered or shown any signs of impairment.

This doesn't even change when a beefy second officer shows up, looking menacing and blocking his path when he tries to leave. The two officers then put on their gloves, and you just know what's about to happen. The beefy one puts him in a headlock, taking him to the floor, and begins to beat him. Even through all of that, the man's legs stay extended--there is no hint of him fighting back or struggling in any way.

Meet Danny Gauthier, single father of two, a sales representative from Montreal. His hotel was just across the street from a Tim Horton's where the beating took place. He tried to leave to go there more than once, but he spent the night in jail instead. The next day, photographs show a bruised face and swollen eyes. Having been denied medical attention while being held, he received treatment at the Montfort Hospital the next day.

Meet Constable Tricia Nesbitt, and Constable Shane Henderson, serving and protecting.

Even the Ottawa Citizen, which has been intolerant in the past of police critics, found this too much--and their editorial was clearly written before news of the latest whitewash internal investigation made its own front page. "It is impossible to view the video of Mr. Gauthier’s arrest, captured by a surveillance camera," the editorial reads, "without feeling queasy." No kidding.

Public Accountability

Let's be blunt: with Chief Vincent Bevan ("they followed procedure") in charge of the Ottawa Police, that queasy feeling is going to continue. There have been too many other incidents in the recent past--assaults on protesters during the G-20 protests in November 2001, the small army of police deployed to remove a few scared kids from an abandoned house (not a single charge was upheld in court, but tens of thousands of taxpayers' dollars fed this little adventure), bizarre raids on a Somalian and a West Indian restaurant, the savaging of a Lebanese family at a reunion, the Tasering of a peaceful protester, Paul Smith, who had been wrongly arrested in the first place, and now a beating, captured on videotape. In no case are Ottawa cops ever in the wrong, as far as Vince is concerned.

The restaurants are out of business now. An internal investigation of the attack on the family continues. Paul Smith went to the provincial oversight body, OCCOPS, after another one of those nod, nod, wink, wink "internal investigations" found that his attackers had followed procedure. OCCOPS determined that excessive force had indeed been used: the adjudicator, Robert Fitches, said that an independently-shot videotape was "instrumental" in his findings, and contradicted police testimony at the inquiry. And now a video of what the victim calls in his lawsuit a "vicious, sadistic and unprovoked assault" is simply tossed aside by the Chief. It may as well have happened in broad daylight in Confederation Square for all he apparently cares: his people follow procedure, nothing can ever be dicey about Ottawa Police behaviour, here in the nation's capital the cops walk on water, and that's that.

There is a clear question of public accountability here that goes far beyond any one of these miserable incidents. Who’s in charge? The citizens of Ottawa (or any other town or city in Canada)? Or the police, too often acting as a law unto themselves (or, more accurately, above or to one side of the law), lying under oath, arrogantly dismissing any and all criticisms and complaints? What are ordinary constables in Ottawa to make of the police administration and its internal procedures that exonerate their brother and sister officers even in the face of a video like the one that the public can now view for themselves? Will this encourage them to be respectful and professional in carrying out their duties?

The answers to these questions are self-evident. What we need to do is take a hard look at structures of accountability. And the place to start, in Ontario, is with the civilian complaints system.

Civilian Review

Justice Patrick LeSage, after many months of receiving submissions on this matter, recently tabled a report, including a number of recommendations, now with the Attorney-General of Ontario, Michael Bryant, who is presently receiving submissions of his own. His key recommendation is for an independent body that would oversee the civilian complaints process, do its own investigations, and try to restore public confidence.

While I believe in Justice LeSage's good intentions--I appeared in front of him twice to assist in delivering submissions on the issue, and his questions were on point and intelligent--I do not believe that, even if implemented, this approach will improve matters significantly. An independent investigative agency will simply run full-tilt-boogie into the blue wall. Unless it is formidably resourced, not likely in the current climate, what we will have, in reality, is a harassed inspectorship scurrying to keep up, and meeting silence and a closing of police ranks at every turn. And even if something does turn up, how will it be handled? Without serious disciplinary measures in place for cops who kick over the traces, an investigation will not really address the continuing problems.

A better model was proposed by the Ottawa Witness Group (declaration of interest: I'm a member). We proposed a two-step complaints process, modeled upon a workplace grievance procedure: first, an internal hearing where the complainant and the police are represented, make argument and give evidence; and, if the complainant isn't satisfied with the outcome, an external review, at the municipal level, by an independent body, the Civilian Oversight Authority (COA). The important point to grasp here is that, while the police would continue to do their own investigations, the creation of an independent external body would change the dynamics considerably. Police management, knowing that their work could be open to challenge, will be encouraged to take a sterner view of police misbehaviour.

This system would be enhanced by a number of other measures. First, the independent COA would have powers to summon witnesses, compel testimony, and subpoena documents. Secondly, some types of complaints, such as those involving allegations of improper police violence, would proceed directly to the COA level. Thirdly, third-party complaints would be permitted (this recommendation was taken up by Justice LeSage, but in the context of his investigative model). Finally, an Office of the Citizen Advisor would be created to advise and assist civilian complainants, modeled on the Office of the Worker Advisor that helps workers with their WSIB claims.

Only this or a similar type of accountability mechanism will bring our police to heel. In the meantime, we all remain vulnerable to police excesses. And the police organization itself--paramilitary, secretive, well-armed--will continue to attract the wrong kind of people, from constable to chief.

Postscript: the OPS budget and the Men in Black

While all this has been going on, the Ottawa Police Service has submitted a budget to the City, demanding a $10.7 million increase over last year. Crime rates are dropping, with the exception of traffic offences, but somehow we need more police officers, more equipment, more fancy toys like those nifty Tasers.

Under antiquated provincial legislation, a police budget may either be accepted or rejected by City Council, but cannot be altered by our elected representatives. In the case of a rejection, OCCOPS can reinstate the budget--so much for democratic accountability in the twenty-first century.

If Ottawa-area residents are tired of watching and re-watching the Tim Horton's video, tonight and tomorrow night Ottawa CTV is showing where a significant amount of police money is going--no, they are not highlighting the OPS' fixed-wing aircraft, but their tactical squad, the "men in black." Stay tuned for this two-segment feature, part of the 6:00 p.m. news program, and check out all the neat weapons and testosterone-fuelled training sessions.


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