Ottawa Police: Who Watches the Watchman?

The Ottawa City Police have come under intense public scrutiny in 2011 as a consequence of several high profile cases in which their officers were caught on camera abusing and manhandling citizens in their custody.  Three of the cases involving Stacy Bonds, Terry Arthur Delay and Roxanne Carr have a number of common elements.  First, they were all caught on video surveillance cameras located in the cellblock at the Ottawa Police Station. Second, charges were stayed by the Crown in two of the cases and the other was dismissed in court. Third, in all three cases, police conduct was such that it turned an otherwise non-confrontational and non-violent encounter into an aggressive and ultimately violent outcome. Fourth, all three cases resulted in lawsuits against the Ottawa Police Service.

There are now five & possibly six lawsuits against the Ottawa Police.

In addition to these cases William Sarazin and Ernest Schuhknecht also filed lawsuits alleging mistreatment by the Ottawa Police. In August 2011, two Ottawa police officers were charged by the Special Investigations Unit with assault causing bodily harm for their treatment of Hugh Styres in the Sandy Hill area of the city. He has indicated that he plans on suing the Ottawa Police. In total, we have five and possibly six lawsuits against the Ottawa Police Service with a dollar amount well in excess of four million dollars.

These incidents beg the question: Are some Ottawa police officers provoking behavior in citizen encounters with the explicit purpose of encouraging violence or disorderly behavior by people in order to make an arrest? The role of the police in society should be to ‘decrease’ not escalate levels of violence whenever they respond to citizen encounters in order maintenance type situations.

Consider the case of Stacy Bonds.  She was clearly arrested not because she was engaged in violent and aggressive behavior but rather because she had the temerity to ask the police officers why they stopped her. If the police were really concerned about public safety wouldn’t it have made more sense to send her home in a taxi?  Surely the cost to the taxpayers of this City would have been substantially less than a million dollar lawsuit and the besmirched reputation of an entire police force.

Another disturbing problem is the fact that some Ottawa police officers are ignoring the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and significant rulings from the Supreme Court of Canada with respect to strip searches. Both Stacy Bonds and Roxanne Carr allege that they were strip searched at the police lockup in the presence of male police officers.  When dismissing the charges against Stacy Bonds, the late Justice Lajoie commented “It is quite clear that the Ottawa Police Service has not been made aware, or is lending a blind eye to the recommendations of the Supreme Court of Canada which prohibits male officers from being present when female suspects are being strip searched.”

Ottawa police officers are ignoring the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The Police Services Act of Ontario makes it clear that one of the core functions of police officers in the province is to prevent crime. Despite this fact it is troubling that not one officer who was present during Bond’s treatment in the police cellblock intervened to stop Sgt Steve Desjourdy (who was subsequently charged with sexual assault by the Special Investigations Unit) from cutting off Ms. Bonds bra. Not a single police officer was charged with discreditable conduct even though they have a statutory duty to prevent crime even if it means protecting a citizen from abuse from another police officer. Just recently, the Quebec Police Ethics Commission took action not only against a Montreal police officer who used excessive force against a citizen but also his fellow officer for failing to intervene to prevent the abuse.

We also have to ask why the administration of the Ottawa Police Service has been unaware of these incidents which appear to have been happening on a regular basis in the cellblock at the Ottawa police station. Why has it taken media exposure, public outrage and judicial castigation to draw attention to a problem in the police cellblock where police should have command and control of the situation?  It is one thing to try and control police conduct in the field where they are away from direct supervision. However, three of the cases of alleged use of force occurred at the police station. In my view this should cause serious concern not only for police officials but also the residents of the City.

The incidents that have come to light in the past year do not reflect the ‘dark’ figure of police abuse—that is the number of cases where citizens have been physically maltreated by police and no charges have been laid.  What we are hearing about are only the proverbial tip of the iceberg. These problems reflect poor leadership, inadequate police training and a flawed system of police accountability both at the local and provincial level. The idea that we can somehow correct police misconduct by adding a few more surveillance cameras with audio capability is naive.  The problem is not with technology but with the attitudes that some Ottawa police officers have towards the public and especially the marginalized citizens of our community that drastically needs to be changed.

The Ottawa Police Service has to keep in mind that like all public sector organizations its role is to provide a service to an imperfect world.  Police officers are recruited from the general population—once they divorce themselves from this fact and characterize the public in an us versus them dichotomy, they lose not only their perspective but their sense of purpose, direction, self-respect and ultimately their connection to the community.  When that happens respect for the police diminishes and the rule of law and our democratic freedoms are jeopardized.

We have seen old fashioned police work that anyone would be proud of in their community.

I recall a case a number of years ago where an Ottawa Police officer exemplified what professional policing is really all about.  A man and woman were drinking at a nearby pub in Ottawa.  At a certain point the bartender stopped serving them drinks and the conduct of the female became rowdier and ultimately so obstreperous the bartender called the police.  The woman was quite tall and heavy set and it was clear that she wasn’t going to go anywhere quietly. Three-four police officers responded to the call and when they arrived had to make a decision about how best to handle the situation.

Rather than charging her and causing a ruckus outside of the bar in full view of the public one of the officers demonstrated unusual ingenuity and professionalism in dealing with the problem.  He spoke to the male patron and discovered that he had a friend who lived only a few blocks away from the pub. The officer called this person who drove down immediately and picked up the two inebriates and took them home.  Following this incident there was no dispute over the release of video surveillance tapes, no allegations of police abuse such as bra cutting and illegal strip searches, no lawsuits against the city and no criticisms regarding the conduct of the Ottawa Police. Instead what we got was just good old fashioned police work that anyone would be proud of in their community.

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