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Ottawa cops under fire

|Written By Glenn Kauth

As a legal storm brews over police actions in Ottawa and new cases continue to emerge, it turns out one firm has been at the centre of all the recent matters before the courts so far: Webber Schroeder Goldstein Abergel.

No defence lawyer would call the Ottawa cases isolated incidents, says Matthew Webber.

“What’s happened is there’s been a heightened sensitivity,” says Matthew Webber, who represented Stacy Bonds, an Ottawa woman accused of public intoxication.

She was at the centre of a now-famous video showing police kneeing her in the back, pinned to the ground, and stripped of her shirt and bra in the cellblock. Those actions drew harsh judicial criticism, resulting in a stay of the case against her.

But that’s not the only matter prompting harsh rebukes of Ottawa police by judges. Video evidence led to the same result in the case of Terry Delay. Cameras captured police dragging him into a cell and kicking him.

His lawyer, Leo Russomanno, also represented Sydney Cranham, whom police sent into a river to retrieve a needle as part of a drug investigation. Cops had happened upon Cranham and a co-accused, Patrick Tobin, in a park.

They say the men then threw needles into the Rideau River, prompting them to order Cranham, in the interests of officer safety, to wade into the water to get them back, Russomanno tells Law Times.

In a fourth case, a third lawyer at Webber’s firm, Michael Spratt, handled proceedings against Robert Crevier. According to the Ottawa Citizen, a police officer detained him arbitrarily when, after stopping him on a hunch, he took him into a cruiser and searched his belongings without advising him of why he was arresting him or of his rights to a lawyer.

The judge’s concerns led to exclusion of the evidence and acquittal on charges of attempted break and enter, possession of break-in tools, and breach of probation earlier this month.

Webber used evidence from the Delay video in attempts to prove discreditable conduct against Special Const. Melanie Morris, the officer involved in both that case and the Bonds matter.

Once the media became aware of Justice Richard Lajoie’s harsh criticism of police actions in his ruling in the Bonds case, the Citizen sought release of the video. Further requests resulted in the release of footage in the Delay matter.

The four cases have prompted a public outcry that has police vowing to take action. “One issue that we’ve quickly identified is the training piece,” says Gilles Larochelle, acting Ottawa police chief. “We’re going to identify special constables.” Currently, the force has 64 special constables who work mainly in cells and prisoner transport.

“We took the opportunity to review how we do business - our policies and procedures,” says Larochelle, noting the force will submit its findings to the local police services board. A likely priority is on training in the use of force for special constables. “The community expects us to action it, to do something about it,” Larochelle says.

In the Cranham case, police actions in sending the accused into the water left the judge “deeply concerned,” Russomanno says. Still, while the court was critical, Russomanno wasn’t surprised at what happened. “As a defence lawyer, it’s sad to say but it’s not the first time I’ve seen an attitude of indifference towards Charter rights.

It seems to me that there are quite a few cases of police officers who are not well aware of the scope of their authority. They don’t seem to be sensitive to breathing life into the rights of the people they’re investigating.”

Of course, a key question is why all of these cases are arising at the same time. But despite concerns surfacing in Toronto over police actions caught on video during the G20 summits just as the Ottawa controversy was swirling, Nathalie Des Rosiers, general counsel with the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, says it’s not an issue of incidents being on the rise.

“From our perspective, it is more a question of media interest because we know there are lots of issues of police brutality that come across our desk on a regular basis,” she says.

She adds that the issue isn’t specific to Ottawa and calls the controversy a “wake-up call for all police forces” to improve training for officers on people’s rights under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

But beyond that, she emphasizes the problems of police culture and leadership, including issues with chiefs who have referred to the Charter as a barrier to law enforcement. “It’s important that the message be that good policing is lawful policing,” she says.

In addition, the cases underline the role of video evidence in acting as a check on police conduct. While that issue continues to be a matter of debate in the latest Toronto G20 brouhaha, Russomanno notes it was key in countering police claims that Bonds was resisting them.

“As a defence lawyer, it has me wondering what we would do without videotape,” he says, adding there aren’t always cameras watching what police do in a public place such as a park. “What if Terry Delay didn’t have a videotape?”

In response, Russomanno would like to see police install cameras in their squad cars to ensure increased monitoring of their actions. But that’s a tricky issue for Des Rosiers, who notes there have also been proposals to have police carry cameras on their hats.

The problem, she says, is whether officers could turn the cameras on or off depending on what suits them. “If it is always on, there certainly are many interactions that may be a breach of privacy. If it’s not always on . . . it is used as a protection device for police.”

Larochelle, too, cites the need for changes in technology available in cellblocks to ensure the visual feed matches the audio. That way, police will have more avenues for explaining their actions. “It’s not only our side; it’s both sides,” he says, noting upgrading the cameras has now become an urgent priority for the force.

Webber, meanwhile, expects the issue will continue to burn as there likely are more cases in the pipeline that will now come to light. “I would venture that there’s not a criminal defence lawyer in the country that would accept that these are isolated incidents,” he says.

  • Diane
    I fully agree with Mr. Russomanno's comments about the video in police cruisers as well as audio recording installed and monitored by a completly independent body. There should also be cameras on the front of the cruisers as well and a random check if tampered with.

    When you go to court, the system believes the officer's testimony as the gospel truth, and the accused is always in the wrong.

    When a police force has you on their radar, there is no stopping them, and their vicious cycle just returns to the starting point again and again. And the longer it goes on the more of a bad name is created for you.

    I just say one thing, "Injustice (such as these cases) anywhere threatens justice everywhere".
    The police are supposed to be there to protect us and not persecute us...for goodness sake we pay our hard earned tax $'s to support their wages.
  • Linda Guy
    my son is 17 yrs old, he was trying to protect another teen when 3 cops were beating him up, he kept asking "why are you doing this to him, he didnt do anything, you have the wrong person" the police did ask my son to leave but he didnt he was scared for the safety of the other guy, 2 grown police offices jumped my 17 year old and smashed his face in window and brick wall, he has bruises and a lump on his forehead, i had to call an ambulance for assistance when he started to get dizzy, he shirt was all ripped, he was so upset and i am also upset i know you can never win against the police, they are uniformed bullies and yet work in high schools to promote anti bullying, my son who always wanted to be a police officer told he, that he was never aware that police handled things this way, i am truly disguted.
  • endemic abuse

    David Johnston
    Stacy deserves more than the money. All the police who witnessed this abuse of trust should be removed from the force including those who minimized it and this sort of damage award should be given to everyone who has been subjected to this or any other type of horrible treatment. If the powers that be find that the courts are removing funding for these types of situations maybe the administrators will be more diligent in providing proper service to the public. This attitude of refusal to respond properly by internal investigations is endemic to our system and is experienced in the school system, the Federal government Childrens' Aid and a host of other organisations who hire bullies and so called victims who have vendettas against certain groups.
    There are far too many abusers being hired in all sectors who use the power they are given to inflict pain and suffering on the helpless. People should be aware that lawyers in Canada are allowed to work on cases like this on a "contingency basis" as in the U.S. which means the lawyer only gets paid if they win. It is the best way to ensure justice and can make a lawyer a very rich person in more ways than just the huge percentage they would receive.
  • Law or Justice?

    Sally
    As a lawyer you hit the nail right on the head with "As a legal storm brews." This has become a legal issue not a justice issue. The Law Profession will be making big bucks out of this and for the most part neither the police will be charged for criminal conduct or will the public feel justice has been done. In the teaching profession of Ontario the self regulatory model has allowed repeat sex offenders back in the teaching profession. Do we expect the same open door for criminal police action???
  • Self regulation

    incredulous
    Self regulation = conflict of interest
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