Sunday, March 18, 2012

Putting the spotlight on cops

There was a time when the police uniform evoked the utmost respect. Those who wore it were automatically revered as heroes dedicated to serving and protecting the community.

This conventional wisdom has been tested recently by officers accused of wrongdoing that has left that uniform tarnished in the minds of some.

Although the vast majority of serving officers are dedicated, professional and hard working upholders of the law, the actions of those few may have overshadowed the continued achievements of the many.

In Toronto, we’ve seen cops accused of beating a homeless man, threatening to Taser a prisoner’s genitals and peaking into windows while committing an indecent act.

Last month, a senior officer who heads up the city’s RIDE program allegedly showed up to work drunk.

And a couple weeks ago a cop was charged with second-degree murder, a first for the force.

All of this while the never ending saga of Toronto drug cops continues to wind its way through the courts.

The Attorney-General’s office is aware of the criticism but remains confident the SIU, OIPRD and police themselves are capable of dealing with any bad apples. It stands firmly behind Toronto’s finest.

“We are proud of the tremendous work police officers do to combat crime and hold criminals accountable for their actions,” ministry spokesman Brendan Crawley said.

But it’s not just Toronto cops accused of sometimes crossing the line. Every force in the GTA has had officers make the news for all the wrong reasons.

Farther away, Waterloo police recently came under fire for arresting a father whose daughter drew a picture of gun at school.

And late last year, Windsor’s police chief stepped down amid controversy after one of his officers was caught on video beating up a doctor.

Many people believe the alleged lies, assaults and cover-ups have created an atmosphere of mistrust, and even fear, of police.

“Certainly in my experience, since (Robert) Dziekanski’s death and the G20 there has been an awakening with respect to how police are perceived by the public,” Julian Falconer, a prominent Toronto lawyer, told The Sun recently.

“I think the reality is that people are no longer willing to simply drink the Kool-Aid.”

Falconer has gone up against cops in court countless times and has felt the tide shift on a personal level.

Years ago he was often branded “anti-police” for representing people wronged by officers.

“But now a lot of people ask me if I’m concerned for my safety,” Falconer added, explaining the question alone says a lot about public perception of police.

He maintains “the vast majority” of cops are good.

“The challenge is to convince those good officers to work with us to get rid of the bad policing,” Falconer said.

His firm represents Dziekanski, who was fatally Tasered by RCMP officers at Vancouver International Airport in 2007.

The Polish immigrant’s death stunned Canadians as they viewed video footage of him being repeatedly zapped. Although it was captured on video — a must in order to have success standing up to cops these days — the four officers involved were never charged or disciplined.

The Dziekanski case started the pendulum swinging, but for many it was the 2010 G20 Summit in Toronto that shattered the police hero archetype.

Many citizens who had never been in trouble with the law before were locked up for exercising their democratic rights.

But it was the individual stories that caused the most damage — like the man-handling of a one-legged man, the arrest of bubble girl and the detention of paraplegic who was left on the floor and forced to defecate on himself.

One of the more high-profile G20 incidents was the brutal beating of Falconer’s client Adam Nobody, which was captured by still and video cameras.

The Ontario Special Investigations Unit probed the incident twice but was only able to charge one cop because the others refused to identify each other or take responsibility for their own actions.

Along the way, SIU Director Ian Scott accused Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair of not cooperating with investigators.

The case infuriated many citizens, some of whom called police hypocrites for expecting the public to come forward with information about crimes but not being willing to do so themselves.

The Office of the Independent Police Review Director, another police watchdog but with less powers than the SIU, recently named the other cops and recommended they face Police Services Act charges.

Chief Blair initially “defended his officers,” Falconer said, recalling how Toronto’s top cop initially claimed the Nobody video was “tampered” with but he later recanted and apologized.

The chief also recently asked the Toronto Police Services Board to extend the statute of limitations so the five cops accused of beating Nobody can face a disciplinary hearing.

Blair’s ability to adapt allowed him to weather the G20 storm, Falconer said, adding Windsor’s police Chief Gary Smith didn’t fair as well.

He stuck by his officers when Det. David Van Buskirk beat a doctor unconscious in 2010 and as many as 10 fellow cops allegedly tried to help cover it up.

Once again, the truth was caught on video.

Officers in that case also allegedly visited the victim in hospital and offered to resolve the matter by dropping his assault police charge, which was unfounded.

A former Toronto cop, who asked not to be named, said police routinely lay such charges to cover up their mistakes or bad behaviour.

He recalled one fellow cop who broke his hand punching a citizen and then charged the victim with assault police.

The ex-cop was once proud to tell people he was an officer. But these days when it comes up at social gatherings, someone inevitably shares a story about a bad cop.

“It’s embarrassing,” he said.

Bogus charges can cost people their home, family, job and reputation, he said.

“Even if you’ve done nothing wrong, your life can be destroyed,” he added.

But Toronto Police spokesman Mark Pugash said complaints against officers are actually down “significantly” and he cautioned there is a big difference between allegations and convictions.

“Every incident where (an officer) is found guilty of unprofessional behaviour is cause for concern,” he said. “But I think you need to look at things over a longer period of time.”

Police are more concerned about the damage caused by judges making sweeping comments about cops, he said, referring to Justice Elliott Allen’s admonishment of 51 Division officers last year.

Consts. Edward Ing and John Cruz guilty were found guilty of beating a homeless man at that trial. However, a Superior Court judge has since overturned that decision and ordered a new trial.

“But those comments are left out there and they cause damage, there’s no doubt about it,” Pugash said.

Nathalie Des Rosiers, general counsel for the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, believes bad cops threatens to undermine our entire justice system.

“The impact of bad behaviour by police has repercussions at many levels,” she said. “There is a real accountability issue and it needs to be fixed.”

Des Rosiers said police forces need to ensure those who sully the uniform are properly and promptly punished.

She and Falconer both believe the province should step in and restore the public’s faith in our police.

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