Op-Ed: We Need Protecting From All This Serving and Protecting

While there has been plenty of publicity about police brutality in dealing with the G20 protesters in Toronto and most currently, with political protesters in Egypt, we have a blatant example here in Calgary of police as aggressors rather than protectors. [1]

Last December, Justice W.P. Sullivan in Alberta’ Court of Queen’s Bench found in favour of a 28-year-old Calgary man who had been physically attacked by police while walking home from the candy store at night in September, 2004.  Justice Sullivan awarded $225,650 in damages to J.N. who claimed his injuries left him with chronic pain, problems with holding a job and with having normal sexual relations.

In light of all these claims of police brutality, it is important that we look at the broad reality of these cases and not just shrug them off as examples of a “few bad seeds.” We have to make a general inquiry into the system that produces this kind of perversion of police power. As Natalie des Roisiers wrote in the Globe and Mail, regarding the recent charging of police officers involved in the G20 Summit “our concern is that the drive to find individual officers as being the scapegoats means more systemic things, concerning the communications and the orders, are not being looked at” [2]

The J.N. v Horton case (2010 ABQB 767) is a particularly harrowing incident because the plaintiff was not protesting, not demonstrating, not drawing attention to himself in any way. He was walking home at night from the local store when he was attacked. It is a blatant and disturbing example of the blurring of the line between the roles of “keeper of the peace” and the criminal and it makes us ask “what happens when the person we’ve appointed to serve and protect is the one we need protecting from? Who is there to protect us then?”

On September 25th, 2004, when J.N. was walking home, constables Horton and Masicotte were called to a house in Calgary’s Forest Lawn neighbourhood for a possible break-in. The suspect was believed to be a man called Perkins, known to police for a variety of offenses including attempted murder of a police officer, and whose picture hung in Horton’s and Masicotte’s police station. Perkins’ physical description – “tall, skinny, almost a brush cut with big ears” was dispatched over the radio to the two police officers. At almost the same time, the homeowners called in again to say the “robber” was actually someone who came to the wrong door. No crime had been committed.

Horton and Masicotte denied receiving the description of Perkins or word that this call was a false alarm, even though the dispatcher claimed both messages had been sent. The two continued on to the house, coming upon J.N. on the street talking to another man.  Masicotte recognized the other man as a known drug dealer while Horton started interrogating J.N., even though at 5’6”, slight build and short hair, he hardly matched the suspect’s description. Masicotte later testified he knew J.N. was not Perkins but couldn’t recall if he told his partner this.

J.N. became verbally abusive but not physically. According to Horton, J.N told him to “fuck off pig”, and at that point, Horton grabbed his shoulders and pushed him down while kneeing him in the groin. In his defense, Horton said he felt threatened, believing J.N. was Perkins and that he was intoxicated. He intended to knee J.N. in the thigh but slipped. The officers then told J.N. to leave but J.N. was in great pain and could only crawl to a nearby house for help. In hospital, his injuries were found to include a ruptured right testicle, damage that required reconstructive surgery. Unable to walk at the time, J.N. spent the next 4 to 5 months recuperating at his mother’s house in Halifax.  A year later, the pain still could not be controlled and doctors first put him on Tylenol #3, then a cocktail of Tylenol, Toradol and Advil and finally Oxycontin. Today, he takes 80 milligrams of the narcotic daily, a highly addictive drug that limits his ability to concentrate. Despite Oxycontin, J.N. has chronic pain and trouble performing intercourse. Because of the pain, he can no longer work as a manual labourer, as he once did, and has become a short-haul driver, a job that is threatened by Oxycontin’s side effect of drowsiness. He now lives in Labrador City.

It is the banality, the Everyman quality of this case that makes J.N. v Horton so alarming. This could be anyone walking home after buying a bag of candy and suddenly being injured for life.  J.N. was awarded $225,650 in damages but it is difficult to place a monetary value on this kind of assault.  Some might consider this case a success in that Horton and the Chief of Police were held jointly and severally liable for the assault committed on J.N. and Horton was required to pay the punitive damages of $5000 out of his own pocket, a rare requirement in police cases.  But Horton suffered no immediate repercussions, and a year after charges were laid after 17 years in the service, Horton retired.

The question I am left with is why Horton was not criminally charged.  Policeman or not, he wantonly assaulted and damaged another person both physically and psychologically for life.  Justice Sullivan addresses thoroughly why s.25 of the Criminal Code does not provide a shelter for Horton’s actions in that he was performing actions not authorized by law but there isn’t much contemplation as to sections under which Horton may be charged. Furthermore, I wonder why there was no Charter breach alleged here.  As a police officer, Horton is performing a public duty and a governmental service.  From what I can tell, the following rights guaranteed under the Charter have been infringed:

Sec 7 Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of the person and the right not to be deprived thereof except in accordance with the principles of fundamental justice.

Sec 10 Everyone has the right on arrest or detention

(a) to be informed promptly of the reasons therefore; (b) to retain and instruct counsel without delay and to be informed of that right; and

Sec 12  Everyone has the right not to be subjected to any cruel and unusual treatment or punishment.

3 Comments on "Op-Ed: We Need Protecting From All This Serving and Protecting"

  1. iclarke | 07/02/2011 at 6:05 pm |

    In light of all these claims of police brutality, it is important that we look at the broad reality of these cases and not just shrug them off as examples of a “few bad seeds.”

    When I hear about this terrible Horton case this seems so out of the ordinary that I can’t help but think this is just an issue of a few VERY bad seeds.

    Is there really an systemic problem with police recruitment, training, etc? And if so, how would we fix it?

  2. Lawrence A. Oshanek | 08/02/2011 at 3:01 pm |

    I have been raising these issues in Calgary for more then 40 years … the truth of the matter is that the public, the press and the majority of those in the justice businesses just do not care.

  3. I’ve known a lot of cops. Most of them want to do the right thing.

    However, while they want to do the right thing, there are systemic pressures which push them in ways that are damaging to both the police, and the public. This is why I’ve started the Police State Watch wiki. If we can bring all of the stakeholders together, we may be able to remake the system into something more equitable to tall.

    Wayne aka The Mad Hatter

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