8 min

Cop shock: police violence across the country sparks outrage

Nowhere to turn when police handle complaints against their own

A couple of police officers are cuffing a drunk woman on William St. There are beefy white cops flanking her on either side, and they shuffle her along the pedestrian pathway to a waiting squad car while speaking too loudly, exchanging condescending looks and asking her the same questions repeatedly.

They frisk her against the police car as a crowd of onlookers stare and, eventually, put her in the back seat. Pretty standard drunk and disorderly arrest? Maybe, but not everyone has the benefit of witnesses to prevent inappropriate behavior during arrests and other police encounters.

It’s been hard to ignore several high-profile, high-stakes cases of alleged police wrongdoing that were short on witnesses. The same pattern has played out in each. Police forces investigate themselves and find limited or no liability. In response to public outcry, an investigation into the investigation is launched — the Ian Bush inquiry and the Crystal Taman inquiry being two high-profile examples. The results are usually confined to recommendations about procedure and are non-binding.

Gay people have cause for concern. Police may not be targeting queers in the systematic way they did in the 1970s. But three separate large-scale bathhouse raids in the last 10 years — most recently in Hamilton in 2004 — it’s clear we’re not out of the woods yet. And gay activists have always held that all people are vulnerable to abuses of power so long as any group is being singled out and victimized. The stakes are even higher in a system that tends to turn a blind eye to violent police misconduct.

After all, social credibility (or access to influence) has great bearing on who listens to us about our experiences, and the police almost always investigate themselves in cases of police brutality and harassment.

There’s no doubt that police have gotten a rough ride over the last two years, with wrongful death and coverup allegations in BC, Manitoba and Quebec all illuminated by the glare of the media spotlight. And it doesn’t bode well for public trust in the police.

The most recent high-profile incident took place in Montreal on Aug 9 when a Montreal police officer shot and killed 18-year-old Fredy Villanueva in a Montreal North park, wounding two other young men in the process. There have been cries of racism and foul play in the community, given that Villanueva had no business with the police, no criminal record and was not carrying a weapon. That investigation is ongoing.

“We’re a destroyed family — a part of us is missing,” said Patricia Villanueva, Fredy’s older sister, at an Aug 15 press conference. “Why did they take him away? That’s what we want to know.”

Montreal police have been less than forthcoming with information about the circumstances of Villanueva’s death, specifically refusing to comment on reports that the shooting may have been in response to an officer being beaten. The Montreal North community erupted in rioting, angry about what they believe is an unprovoked, racialized killing — and the increased presence of patrol cars in the community since the shooting is doing little to repair severely strained relations between the two groups.

Members of the Montreal media have also chimed in with criticisms about how the Villanueva case has been handled so far, several of whom have pointed out that Sûreté du Quebec investigators waited more than a week to collect testimony from the two officers involved in the shooting.

No explanation has been offered for the delay or the general lack of information being made available about the shooting. Some community members assert that investigators are showing more loyalty to their fellow police officers than to the public.

Montreal-based advocacy group, the Collective Opposed to Police Brutality, made a public statement about the Villanueva shooting via the No One Is Illegal blog, saying, “It’s unacceptable that police investigate other police officers in such sensitive cases. Police organizations are in solidarity with each other. It’s not shocking that killer cops are systematically cleared by their colleagues.”

The Villanueva shooting has revived heated public debate across Canada over the appropriateness of police organizations investigating themselves in cases of serious injury or death.

Despite widespread critiques over the last several years regarding Quebec’s investigative approach for police shootings — the Sûreté du Quebec conducts internal investigations that go unsupervised by outside agencies — Quebec public security minister Jacques Dupuis insists that there is “no reason whatsoever to change it.”

Disturbing, given the fact that a ‘shoot first ask questions later’ approach is more common than we might think in Canada — Quebec and Ontario average .28 and .29 police shooting deaths per 100,000 people, per year, while BC averages .45 deaths per 100,000.

At the RCMP level, the most high-profile incident in recent years is the Oct 2005 shooting death of Ian Bush at an RCMP holding cell in Houston, BC. The 22-year-old man was shot once in the back of the head after being arrested for having an open container of liquor outside a local hockey game. It’s difficult to say what happened between Bush and the arresting officer in the 20 minutes that Bush was in the holding cell because the camera that usually records what happens in the cell block was not turned on.

Though many consider Bush’s death suspicious, investigating officers from the RCMP concluded in a Nov 2007 report that the officer responsible for his death, Paul Koester, acted in self-defence and was therefore justified in using lethal force. Koester was not suspended during the investigation and continues to work for the RCMP at another detachment.

The Commission for Public Complaints Against the RCMP, an RCMP watchdog and independent arbiter, characterized the investigation into Bush’s death as fair, professional and unbiased. But later in the same report, CPC Chair Paul Kennedy recommended that better guidelines be developed in relation to how the RCMP investigates itself. The two statements seem to contradict each other.

At the time, the civilian head of the RCMP, William Elliott, stated he didn’t believe there was a public perception that the RCMP’s internal investigations lacked integrity. But the RCMP’s complaints commission is calling that into question. Last fall, the organization launched a Canada-wide review of all cases where Mounties investigated their own officers in cases of serious injury or death between April 2002 and March 2007. It’s unclear as of yet when they will report their findings.

The RCMP complaints commission has also drafted a model piece of legislation that is designed to “enhance” current laws relating to the oversight of the RCMP. Currently, there are no formal policies in place that govern how the RCMP investigates itself, and this legislation is design to create “an appropriate standard of accountability” during the investigative process. The CPC hopes to commit a good chunk of their $3.3 million funding increase for 2008-9 to further policy research in this area.

Nelson Kalil is a spokesperson for the RCMP’s Commissioner of Public Complaints.

“People automatically assume that the process is corrupt to begin with, so why bother,” says Kalil. “But we want to ensure, the best that we can, that the people investigating are impartial and professional.”

All of which raises the question of what recourses are available to address abuses of power by police. There are, of course, public complaints processes at every level of policing in Canada. But advocates like AJ Withers from the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty say those processes are compromised.

“We don’t believe that the police complaints process is at all legitimate,” says Withers. “You have to go into the police station and make a complaint to the colleagues or friends of the officer you’re complaining against. That in itself is incredibly intimidating and difficult for people to do.”

Because of the limitations of the complaints process and the fear of biased investigations or police reprisals, many victims of police brutality and harassment have turned to legal action instead. In this realm, the two options are to launch a civil lawsuit or small claims court.

Strange as it seems, small claims court has several advantages, especially because it limits liability for legal expenses.

For those with cash, civil lawsuits can make a high impact. Toronto lawyer Julian Falconer is currently representing a number of people in high-profile civil cases, including former CFL linebacker Orlando Bowen, whose suit against the Peel Regional Police is for $14.6 million.

Bowen alleges that he was cuffed and beaten by police in the parking lot of a Mississauga restaurant in Mar 2004, then framed for possession of cocaine. He was later acquitted of the drug charges when it became clear in court that the police officers who were at the scene that night could not get their stories straight.

Lawsuits like these are now possible throughout Canada because of an Oct 2007 Supreme Court of Canada ruling. In the case, Jason Hill, an aboriginal man living in Hamilton, was falsely charged with ten counts of robbery and put in a police line-up with 11 Caucasian men. The line-up led to Hill’s conviction, and he served 20 months in prison before being acquitted of the charges. He sued the police, and while he wasn’t successful, it created new case law that allows all residents of Canada to sue over negligent police investigations.

When it comes to civil lawsuits, the risk involved is purely financial. It’s important for complainants to know ahead of time that, if the court doesn’t find in their favour, they will likely be required to pay the legal costs of the defendant(s). Often this adds up to tens of thousands of dollars on top of the complainant’s personal legal costs. Needless to say this is option is unrealistic for most people, so small claims may be the best course of action.

In Ontario, it used to be that community organizations like OCAP and Parkdale Community Legal Services would represent people in legal matters if they could not afford to hire a lawyer or paralegal. But, in 2006, the Ontario government under Dalton McGuinty passed a piece of legislation called The Access to Justice Act, which states that only lawyers and registered paralegals can offer legal representation in court. Community organizations can now only offer legal information — but no legal advice or representation.

“It means that organizations like ours can’t do legal representation for free,” says Withers of OCAP. “People don’t get represented. It’s basically abandoned a large number of people who are poor in this province. Everyone here thinks it’s outrageous that it’s called the Access to Justice Act.”

Meanwhile, the Parkdale Community Legal Services doesn’t even deal with the police complaints process anymore, says Magaly St Martin.

“We took a stance a few years back that we were no longer going to do police complaints because it only validates a corrupt system, but we were quite successful [supporting people through small claims court],” says St Martin. “It would have been quite interesting to see what would have happened had we been able to continue.”

St Martin was a member of the now-defunct Toronto-based group The Small Claims Court Police Accountability Collective, which created a manual for bringing small claims complaints against police in Ontario. While the group is no longer active, the manual is still available for those who are looking for information on how to get started.

It’s important to have legal channels for seeking redress in cases involving police abuses of power, but some argue that there is also a need to integrate civilian oversight bodies into complaints processes at every level of policing. This is something that Linda Bush has pushed for very publicly since her son Ian was killed.

But there’s more work to be done, says Emily Dixon, an activist with Vancouver’s Anti-Poverty Committee. She says we need to address the underlying prejudices at work in policing before any change in the complaints process would be effective.

“This is an issue that interests me politically and personally,” says Dixon. “I work in the downtown east side of Vancouver with women who experience police brutality in their everyday lives — many of whom are sex trade workers, indigenous women, women of colour or refugee women. I don’t know of anyone who has [complained]. “

Another salient point is that organizations focussed on civilian oversight come onto the scene when something horrible has already happened — they do little on the preventative level. And could a civilian oversight agency have the power to make binding recommendations or force the hand of the police in regard to how investigations proceed?

Many questions remain about how to properly investigate police wrongdoing. But most advocates agree that something’s gotta give, since Canadians are now being confronted regularly with stories of police violence and halfhearted investigations of them. We are all vulnerable when bigotry goes unchecked, and the processes currently in place to address police wrongdoing rarely satisfy the victims’ desire for justice and compensation.