Doug Christie: Police must be accountable to earn respect
Rule of law must apply to officers and the public in equal measure
By Doug Christie, Special to Times Colonist
Police deserve to be admired and respected to the extent they protect society from violent criminals, theft and fraud, rape and other social evils.
But the respect they deserve can only be earned by careful attention to the law themselves and respect for the citizens they serve, whether they be drunk or sober, rich or poor, right or wrong, good or bad. Respect is a mutual thing.
It is shocking to hear of a policewoman stabbed, perhaps just because she was in uniform. It is equally shocking to hear police have shot to death Jeff Hughes and Ian Bush, or kicked a couple of people into unconsciousness to prevent a fight, or arrested someone like Mike Stebih for no good reason.
The point of this is simple. If police want to continue to be respected, they must earn it through a transparent scrutiny of their own dubious acts or questionable conduct.
To think police don't break the law on occasion would be naïve. To think prosecutors who rely on them every day as professional witnesses can impartially determine if they have broken the law or that lawyers who work with them every day can be counted on to look with dispassionate objectivity is downright childish.
There is a growing gulf between the police and public trust, which can only be fixed and crossed with any hope of restoration of faith when the police are judged for their conduct by the public themselves and not by their constant co-workers in the system itself.
This can be accomplished by an equally simple modification to our law. Every police action causing death or grievous bodily harm to a citizen should be subject to an inquest, which must commence within a short and reasonable time.
At this inquest a jury should be empanelled, which has the power to attribute fault and law charges under the Criminal Code. Any aggrieved party should have standing to appear, testify and be represented to call evidence and cross-examine witnesses, just like at a coroner's inquest today.
The results of the jury's verdict would be binding and unappealable. They could lay charges and could recommend remedial action. The minor modifications to the Coroners Act and the appointment of legally trained coroners would cost money, but respect for law is not cheap and the absence of it causes a violent breakdown of the whole society and the safety and security of police and the public.
If police want respect, and they should deserve it, they must stand before the public as equals, not above us with the protections of their friends, in a legal system most of us do not even understand.
I do not want to wait from Oct. 23, 2009, to perhaps April 2011 for an inquest into the death of Jeff Hughes, who was shot to death in Nanaimo in the presence of more than five police officers, to know what happened and why.
Is there a shortage of witnesses? Can't they remember what happened? If we wait much longer, they may have that excuse.
Is the public satisfied when teenager Ian Bush is shot in the back of the head by a lone RCMP officer, less than an hour after his arrest for having an open beer bottle, and the attorney general declares no charges are warranted?
If Robert Dziekanski had not been on video, would there be a public inquiry? How difficult is it for us to see a person kicked in the head and hear that a prosecutor in the privacy of his or her office has decided no charges are warranted -- and hence we are assured justice is done?
The essential ingredient of a society where citizens and police are in agreement on the enforcement of the law is simply that the law applies to police and citizens in equal measure. The police cannot be above the law. With the present system of accountability, that impression is well-founded.
To remove the present lack of trust, true accountability must be restored. My suggestion would go a long way to achieving that end.
Doug Christie is a Victoria lawyer.
And on the Jeff Hughes case
Public to hear facts of Nanaimo shooting
NANAIMO — Facts surrounding the police shooting death of a 48-year-old Nanaimo man will be revealed to the public for the first time at an inquest scheduled for July.
The court proceeding will take place nearly two years after Jeffrey Scott Hughes, described by some people as a harmless man who loved the environment but by others as a neo-Nazi, was shot dead by Nanaimo RCMP outside his Selby Street apartment on Oct. 23, 2009.
The inquest is scheduled for July 25 to 29 in B.C. Supreme Court in Nanaimo. It will be heard by Coroner Marj Paonessa and a jury.