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How the Jordan Lafond inquest highlights need for better police oversight

How the Jordan Lafond inquest highlights need for better police oversight
Canada
On Oct. 23, 2016, a stolen pickup truck being pursued by Saskatoon police crashed into a chain-link fence next to a Catholic high school. The driver lived but his passenger died a day later.

It was the crash that fatally injured 21-year-old Jordan Lafond, police said. Then, a month later, they said the arresting officer used physical force although they didn’t know yet how — or if — that contributed to his death.

With an autopsy pending, the police chief at the time, Clive Weighill, promised the force would use all the investigative tools at its disposal to figure out what contributed to Lafond’s death. But how that investigation panned out, as revealed in an inquest last week, has further fractured the Lafond family’s trust in police.

“Some of these questions are going to sound kind of funny cause you and I have known each other for 15 years probably, played some hockey, were on the Tact Team together for a number of years.”

This, says the Lafond family’s lawyer, Chris Murphy, is how Saskatoon detective Corey Lenius, tasked with investigating his peers, began an interview with officer Thomas Gresty just days after Lafond died. Gresty has admitted to kneeing Lafond in the head repeatedly after the crash under the mistaken belief that the severely injured man was trying to flee. The so-called fleeing movements were quite likely the result of Gresty’s colleague’s struggle to handcuff Lafond after he was thrown from the vehicle.

At the inquest , Gresty testified that Lafond had a swollen and bloodied left eye, but didn’t know how that happened. The crash hadn’t seemed that serious, he noted, and his knee strikes had been to the top of Lafond’s head and not the front of his face. However, officer Kelly Olafson, who found Lafond under the truck stomped on his hand and pulled him out, didn’t remember the knee strikes. No charges were laid.

The quotes from Lenius’s interview were read into the record on the first day of the inquest, Murphy says.

Gresty says, “Yep.”

If ever there was a case illustrating the need for civilian oversight of police in Saskatchewan, Murphy says, this is it.

While Saskatchewan is one of the few provinces without an independent special investigations unit, the problem of how best to police the police isn’t limited to the Prairie province. Across the country, people are struggling to find a balance that safeguards public accountability without hindering policing efforts.

It’s much more complicated than deciding whether a police officer should face criminal charges for his or her actions, says John Sewell , coordinator of the Toronto Police Accountability Coalition. You have to address whether the actions of police are reasonable.

“The power of policing culture is very, very strong and many politicians are not willing to take it on,” says Sewell, speaking from personal experience as former mayor of Toronto. “They think they’ll be attacked by police associations with, ‘hey you’re just in favour of crime.’”

That’s evident this week in Ontario, he says, with Premier Doug Ford’s halt to legislation that would have strengthened oversight of law enforcement across the province. The bill would have been the first update to the Police Services Act in more than 25 years. Police associations felt it was rushed.

Further east, conversations about civilian oversight seem to be slowly working their way to fruition. Atlantic talks to expand the Nova Scotia Serious Incident Response Team (SIRT) region-wide are ongoing. The team already operates on Prince Edward Island, but New Brunswick is still debating the merits of an Atlantic team or its own provincial SIRT. The creation of a Newfoundland and Labrador unit is slightly further along, but not yet operational.

Last year, Nunavut commissioned an “informal” report on police oversight across Canada but the government has made no changes in light of that information. RCMP officers involved in serious incidents or death in the territory are still investigated by outside agencies, such as the Ottawa Police Service.

A spokesman for the provincial government said its Public Complaints Commission functions as civilian oversight, even though it doesn’t have the power to lay charges and is only called to action when someone makes a complaint.

“There are no plans to change,” spokesman Noel Busse said via email.

There should be, Sewell says, in part because of Saskatchewan police’s history with Indigenous communities including Starlight Tours . The term is used to describe the sometimes-fatal practice of police dropping off inebriated Indigenous people far from town so they could walk it off. Lafond was an Indigenous man. He was also father to one little girl.

The Saskatoon Police Service declined to comment, citing the commission’s open investigation.

“There’s no question that having a special investigation unit is a step forward because there’s a fair amount of legislative independence in those situations,” Sewell says.

They also prevent someone’s on-ice teammate from handling an investigation into their actions.

“The hallmarks of acceptable investigations are that they are independent, thorough and transparent,” said Ian Scott, former director of the Ontario Special Investigations Unit (SIU) via email.

“Even if it’s conducted thoroughly and without bias, it has the appearance of bias, and the public will not accept it.”

The Saskatoon police should have wanted an external agency to investigate, Murphy says.

“The last thing I would want, if I’m the chief of the police, the last thing I would want is for accusations of bias and impartiality to be thrown at my police service,” he says.

There is too much still that demands further scrutiny, Murphy says, too many questions that should have been asked by investigators that only came out during the inquest.

“You need proper investigations,” underscores Erick Laming, a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto whose research focuses on police use of force and accountability.

Police are arguably the most powerful profession, he says, which is why a failure to ensure an independent investigation can negatively impact the public’s confidence in them. Flawed as they are, he says, SIUs can help.

“If they’re doing a thorough investigation and they’re not finding guilt then you know that’s the verdict,” he says. “As long as you know somebody independently is investigating, I think that’s the most important thing now.”

No matter where you are or which police force is being investigated, says Michael Bryant, executive director of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, it only works if the public buys in.

“The point is to get something in place that people can have confidence in,” he says, “that not only is fair and independent but looks fair and independent and you don’t have that in Saskatchewan right now.”

There’s not necessarily one particular system Saskatchewan should be looking to emulate, Laming says, as they all function slightly differently. Instead, he notes, the conversation we need to be having is about creating consistency nationwide.

“It’s a problem,” he says, and “everyone needs to be involved in it.”

You imagine that change will be reactive, Laming says, that people will hear stories about people, including Lafond, dead after an interaction with police and demand change.

“You think something’s going to come about but nothing has yet,” he says. “We see that in other jurisdictions that don’t have independent agencies.”

It’s going to take ordinary people pressing their local politicians, Sewell says.

“Sooner or later we have to have people who say we’re raising these questions, they have to be debated, we’ve got to make changes … We’ve got to start talking about this stuff.”

Lafond’s mother, Charmaine Dreaver, is not done fighting for her son. Inquest jurors deemed his death accidental and made two recommendations geared toward gun control (there were three guns in the stolen truck). But, Dreaver said after the verdict, “It’s not going to end there.”

She’s pursuing a complaint to the Saskatchewan Public Complaints Commission. If it makes a finding of misconduct, it will still be up to the police chief to determine what repercussions, if any, an officer might face.

Without prejudging the investigation, the commission’s chair, Brent Cotter, says he expects the investigation will focus on whether the force used against Lamont “was necessary or unnecessary, whether it was proper conduct or misconduct.”

At this point, Murphy says, Lafond’s family is just hoping for some formal recognition that it was wrong for an officer to knee someone repeatedly while they’re “literally unconscious” with other officers pinning them down.

“(They hope) there’s some acknowledgment that that is not right,” he says, “that the next time there is an Indigenous person lying on his stomach being held down by three police officers, literally incapable of moving his own body, that the same thing doesn’t happen.”
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