Police and aboriginal relations strained
Published Sunday, August 24, 2008 1:50PM CST
Two recent deaths involving police have sparked an allegation of Winnipeg officers on "killing sprees" and driven a deeper wedge between the force and the aboriginal community.
The deaths of Michael Langan, 17, after he was Tasered by police, and Craig McDougall, who was shot by officers, have led to accusations of racism from aboriginal groups. Police say both men were brandishing knives, but the explanation has done little to quell the outrage.
The two cases this summer, less than two weeks apart, came after an inquest that concluded earlier this year into the 2005 police shooting of Matthew Dumas. That death also prompted suggestions of racism, even though the officer involved was Metis.
Deepening the most recent anger is the fact that McDougall is a distant relative of J.J. Harper, another aboriginal man whose 1988 killing by police led to a public inquiry and recommendations to overhaul the justice system.
The city's top cop said he is intent on fixing the force's image.
"There are issues, there's no doubt about it," police Chief Keith McCaskill said in a recent interview with The Canadian Press. "We'll have to gain trust over a period of time, and that's what we're going to try to do."
The situation reached a boiling point after the McDougall shooting Aug. 2. Leaders from dozens of First Nations in Manitoba gathered to protest. Morris Swan-Shannacappo, representing southern chiefs, begged McCaskill to end "the killing sprees that seem to be enjoyed by the Winnipeg Police Service."
Swan-Shannacappo has refused to be interviewed since delivering his harsh message. But the comments put more cracks in an already delicate relationship.
"It doesn't matter what we do, we're always wrong."
Mike Sutherland, head of the union that represents Winnipeg officers, said it's disappointing to see the rapid rush to judgement.
"It doesn't matter what we do, we're always wrong," said Sutherland, a veteran with two decades of experience in law enforcement. "When there's comments that we enjoy a killing spree, that to me is very disappointing."
Police have made a real effort to improve their dealings with First Nations over the years, Sutherland said, and they want to continue building that relationship.
McCaskill, for instance, has plans for more community outreach through public engagements and appearances. He's already been on the speaking circuit to build relationships in the community.
The police chief and the province's top aboriginal leader appear to be on the same page on one thing - there's a lot of work to be done.
McCaskill "more than accommodating"
Since McCaskill took office eight months ago, he has been "more than accommodating to us," said Grand Chief Ron Evans of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs.
But that attitude needs to filter through the entire department, he said.
McCaskill agrees. Still, he said that the department's image is a concern only in some circles.
"I think the majority of the public supports the police."
Winnipeg is not the only western Canadian city to face challenges in the relationship between aboriginals and police.
Saskatoon had major problems because of what some said was a practice by police of picking up aboriginal men and dropping them on the outskirts of the city. One pair of officers was convicted of unlawful confinement for dropping an aboriginal man on the outskirts of the city in frigid temperatures. A public inquiry into the 1990 freezing death of Neil Stonechild found the aboriginal teen had been in police custody prior to being found. Two officers were fired over the case.
There's a long road of healing ahead, but Saskatoon police Chief Clive Weighill said in an interview "there's no doubt" the relationship between police and First Nations has improved.
The head of Saskatchewan's largest aboriginal organization agrees. But Chief Lawrence Joseph of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations said there's still work to be done in other parts of the province.
In June, he criticized RCMP for what he called "Rambo-style" policing after a young man, who officers said was armed with a knife, was shot on the White Bear Reserve southeast of Regina.
"Any shooting is a major step backward," said Joseph in a telephone interview from the Key First Nation.
Police shouldn't investigate themselves
The negative headlines in Winnipeg have gone beyond the aboriginal community.
A public inquiry recently concluded into a controversial plea bargain by a former Winnipeg officer who, after an all-night drinking party in February 2005, crashed his car into a vehicle driven by a 40-year-old woman who died.
Charges against Derek Harvey-Zenk of impaired driving causing death, criminal negligence causing death and refusing a breathalyzer were dropped as part of a plea deal. There was concern by some - including Crystal Taman's devastated family - that he benefited from either an incompetent investigation or from favourable treatment by investigators.
One of the main complaints arising from the Taman inquiry - and one frequently cited by native groups - is that police often investigate themselves.
It's one thing the provincial government plans to examine in its overhaul of legislation that governs police forces. Manitoba's Police Act has not been updated since 1932.
The review is expected to get underway in the fall. A draft of the revamped act could be tabled as early as next spring.