Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Ottawa Police on the beat

It was a bad day for Ottawa's finest. Paul Smith, a protester who had been Tasered, twice, by a police officer as he lay on the ground, in handcuffs, fully subdued after being mistakenly arrested, was vindicated--finally--more than two years afterwards. A hearing of the Ontario Civilian Commission on Police Services (OCCOPS) found Acting Sgt. Paulo Batista guilty of "unnecessary use of authority" (read: "brutality") during the incident. A police videocam somehow failed to capture the vital few seconds in which the assault took place, but a bystander was taking his own footage at the time and caught the whole affair on tape. I blogged about that incident here.

Hearings of this nature are rare at OCCOPS, a body not known for being unfriendly to police. Mr. Smith had previously complained to the Ottawa Police Service, who investigated themselves and found, surprise, surprise, that nothing was wrong. Their "Professional" Standards Branch responded to the complaint with a lengthy, self-serving letter in which they stated that "pain compliance" (read: "torture") was justified, because passive resistance is a form of active resistance. Perhaps--but don’t hold your breath--the OPS will now develop publicly-available guidelines for Taser use. Perhaps--but keep breathing--the McGuinty government in Ontario will act on the recommendations of the LeSage Commission that reviewed public complaints procedures in the province and urged the establishment of an independent system.

Hard on the heels of this setback, the OPS now finds itself defending a lawsuit by a Montreal salesman, who was viciously assaulted by police in a Montreal Road Tim Horton's last year. Don't take my word for it: watch the video for yourself. The two cops involved are now under investigation (on full pay, of course) thanks to a diligent Deputy Crown Attorney who, after seeing the video, withdrew the routine "resisting arrest" charge and three charges of "creating a disturbance" too, and asked the police to investigate the goings-on. The "Professional" Standards Branch will be doing the investigating once more, but maybe the video will make a difference, although it didn’t seem to do very much for Julie Cayer.

What is key here, in fact bone-chilling, is the fact that these cops are in trouble only because of increasingly-ubiquitous video cameras. Those of us who have fussed publicly about videocams and privacy rights may have to do a little re-thinking. Imagine the number of shady incidents taking place every day with no cameras around; imagine the number of innocents beaten up and then convicted on bogus charges of "resisting arrest" or "assault on police".

Video-tech is now drilling holes in the blue wall, but it's not enough. We need an independent review system for complaints against police, and we need a substantial change in police culture, something not likely to happen in Ottawa with Chief Vincent Bevan in charge. We need enough public education (community groups like the Ottawa Witness Group are doing a good job of this, but it shouldn't be left entirely to hard-pressed volunteers) to encourage people with complaints to come forward. We need a system, perhaps an Office of the Citizen Advisor, where such individuals can be guided through the process. Finally, when cops are found guilty of abuse, in Ottawa or elsewhere, they need to get more than a wrist-slap and a wink from a complaisant judicial system.

Public accountability is the issue; but the Ottawa police appear to be accountable to no one but themselves. No doubt this is duplicated in many other cities and towns across Ontario, and indeed across Canada. While Canadians are rightly demanding, in the wake of the Gomery inquiry, that politicians and public employees be made accountable, exceptions still get made for that group of public servants known as police. This has to stop.

Miss Vicky has some good commentary over at her place.

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