Tuesday, January 10, 2012

New Leadership, New Initiatives for Windsor Police

On December 23, 2011, Windsor Police Chief Gary Smith announced his retirement from the force.  His decision to retire came amid numerous allegations of brutality and misconduct by Windsor police officers, public outcry over accountability for the actions of police officers, and heavy criticism of Smith for his handling of recent allegations of police misconduct. As of the date of Smith’s retirement, the Windsor Police Service was facing $72-million in lawsuits, with thirty cases alleging police brutality. Since 2006, mainly through out of court settlements, Windsor Police has paid over $820,000 of taxpayers’ money to victims for malicious prosecution, wrongful arrest, and assault lawsuits.  Public discontent with the actions of many officers and the Service’s handling of allegations of police misconduct has been palpable. 

Several high profile cases, including a $14.2-million lawsuit against the Windsor Police Service by Dr. Tyceer Abouhassan, have led to a shaken public confidence in the city’s police.  Dr. Abouhassan alleges he suffered a beating at the hands of Det. David Van Buskirk, and was subsequently charged with assault in what his lawyer has called a cover-up by police to protect an officer.  Det. Kent McMillan is charged with discreditable conduct for failing to conduct a fair and impartial investigation of the incident involving Dr. Abouhassan and is also charged with deceit for filing a false report in the case.  Regarding the public’s outrage at the Windsor Police Service’s recent alleged action, lawyer Andrew McKay, who currently represents Det. Van Buskirk, contends that police are merely visible targets for these allegations and that misconduct is found in every field of work. 

This view that Windsor Police are merely more exposed in the public eye than others is not widely shared. Windsor Mayor Eddie Francis has joined public discontent, and has stated that the frequency in which Windsor Police vehicles are involved in crashes has caught his attention.  In an interview with the Windsor Star, Windsor Law Professor David Tanovich stated that even judges are increasingly speaking out against police officers. 
Since Smith’s resignation, acting police Chief Al Frederick appears to be taking steps toward the right direction. Since his role as acting Chief, he has been outspoken over the need for change within the Windsor Police Service.  In a news conference, he bluntly stated that in terms of transparency and accountability for Windsor Police, the “status quo is not the path forward for the Windsor Police Service”.  He went on to say the Windsor Police Service will no longer “thumb its nose” at the Special Investigations Unit (SIU), amid recent accusations by Ontario Ombudsman Andre Marin that the Windsor Police Service has both delayed and failed to report numerous incidents involving police misconduct.  Frederick has additionally responded to four SIU letter’s originally ignored by former Chief Gary Smith, but stated that Windsor Police Service’s failure to report certain incidents were a result of a difference in the Police Service’s definition of “serious injury” from the SIU. 

Frederick has furthermore introduced Project Accountability, a 27-measure initiative including enhanced police training, new rules regarding conflict of interests, organizational and external policy reviews conducted by the Office of the Independent Police Review Director, and a more liberal definition of the term “serious harm”.  The initiative also includes plans to move the professional standards branch out of Windsor Police Headquarters.  In an interview, Frederick stated that moving the branch, which is in charge of investigating public complaints, was made in an effort to reduce the public perception of intimidation of those reporting complaints.

Frederick’s promises of change have so far appeared genuine, and as he stated, many of the 27 measures have already been implemented. It will be interesting to see whether these steps in the right direction lead to the kind of transparent and accountable police force the public desires.  But, as Professor Tanovich noted in a recent op ed in the Windsor Star, other actors in the justice system, including judges, Crown attorneys and defence lawyers, also play a crucial role in properly addressing police transparency and accountability, and should thus be considered in any plans to bring about change.

Posted by Benjamin Dillon (Windsor Law I)

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