Public scrutiny of the Winnipeg Police Service (WPS) has been vastly heightened following the month of October. At roughly 8 pm on October 10th, 2017, 23-year-old expected father Cody Severight was struck and killed by a vehicle while crossing Main Street near Sutherland Avenue. 34-year-old off-duty WPS Constable Justin Holz was quickly arrested more than seven kilometres away from the crash scene and was charged with impaired driving causing death and failure to remain at the scene of the accident. Holz, an 8-year WPS member assigned as a criminal investigator, has since been released from custody on a promise to appear in court and has been placed on administrative leave with pay. Worse yet, two unnamed WPS traffic officers who were responsible for investigating the circumstances surrounding Holz’s charges have also been placed on administrative leave with pay and may be facing charges of their own for both failing to attend to the crash scene and failing to administer Holz’s breathalyzer test. Former WPS officer Len Eastoe worries that the resulting delay in the administration of Holz’s breathalyzer test raises serious questions about whether the test results will even be admissible in court. It may yet be some time before the public knows what exactly occurred during the investigation into the hit-and-run and whether Holz was given favourable treatment due to his status as a WPS officer.
Manitoba’s Independent Investigation Unit (IIU) is responsible for investigating all serious incidents involving police officers, and as such is currently responsible for the investigation surrounding Cody Severight’s tragic death. The IIU is also investigating at least two other events from October, but both seem to pale in comparison to the actions of Holz. One involves another off-duty WPS officer hitting a pedestrian with their vehicle on Portage Avenue and causing serious injuries in what appears to be an honest accident. The other involves allegations of a woman being assaulted by WPS officers while she was in police custody.
October’s incidents involving WPS members raise serious questions about police accountability and Winnipeg’s current police culture. The current institutions in place to hold on-duty WPS members accountable are worryingly ineffective at encouraging WPS officers to be accountable to the very communities they serve. The Law Review Enforcement Agency (LERA) receives and investigates complaints about WPS members, but of the 122 complaints they received in 2016, 53 percent of them were dismissed due to lacking enough evidence to justify a hearing, and only 2 percent actually proceeded to trial. Even among the cases that make it to trial in a given year, very few of them succeed. Likewise, about one in every four complaints in 2016 were either abandoned or withdrawn by the complainant. Criminal defence lawyer Zilla Jones worries that the way the LERA is currently operating sends a message to citizens that it is not even worth using, and she notes that “what I’ve heard from a lot of clients is, ‘[the] LERA is a joke.'”
Unfortunately, the LERA’s previous years have been all too similar to 2016. Between 1985 and 2014, more than 4,300 complaints were reviewed by the LERA. Of those, 1,896 of them were dismissed, 1,785 were abandoned, 292 were resolved informally, 8 saw an admission of guilt by the respondent officer, and 2 were forwarded to criminal court. Although 135 of those complaints did result in a public hearing before a provincial court judge, less than ten of those cases had results favouring the complainant. LERA’s commissioner Max Churley openly admits that in his 14 years with the LERA, the amount of times a complainant has succeeded in a hearing is “under 10 for sure.” In this unfortunate respect, it could even be suggested that store clerks and baristas are more accountable to the people they serve than the WPS.
One major flaw with the LERA is the fact that complainants only have a 30-day window to make their claim following the reported incident, while in comparison, Saskatchewan’s Public Complaint Commission has a window of up to 12 months. Another major problem with the LERA is the fact that citizen complainants often cannot afford a lawyer to help them succeed, while WPS officers are guaranteed legal counsel through their employment agreement. This systemic flaw is further enhanced by the fact that it is generally uncommon for Legal Aid to assist in a LERA case. Although the LERA’s job is complicated by many complaints being “he-said, she-said” scenarios, the abysmally low number of successful complainants raises serious questions as to if WPS members are actually accountable for their behaviour in any meaningful way. Indeed, it seems ridiculously improbable that only an extremely small minority of complainants had legitimate complaints. At the very least, there is room for improvement in the LERA.
Other issues surrounding the WPS continue to remain. The 2015 purchase of an armoured vehicle raises serious concerns about where the WPS’s priorities lie and whether the WPS is becoming increasingly militarized, possibly at the expense of the community policing model. Concerningly, 2016 also saw the WPS Tactical Support Team becoming increasingly more involved in tasks typically reserved for community policing such as noise complaints, traffic incidents, and domestic calls. Likewise, when the WPS faced budgetary issues in 2016, the proposed and long-awaited body-worn camera pilot project was quickly scrapped, and whether it will return in the near future is unknown. This lost pilot project may have had extremely beneficial effects in encouraging police accountability. Ultimately, the growing tendency of the WPS to generally opt towards displays of power over community involvement raises serious questions about whether taxpayer resources are being used in the most efficient ways to reduce crime. It also adds support to the serious and growing concerns amongst Winnipeg citizens about whether the existing workplace culture within the WPS is truly serving community interests as opposed to their own. At this point in time, Winnipeg may need to think about how it approaches police accountability, and how it could benefit from implementing policies that improve its current police culture. Ensuring an accountable police culture must be a continued priority.
This blog post was written by a CCLA-PBSC RightsWatch student. Views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of the CCLA or PBSC.