Charges against police officers a ‘growing trend’: expert

DELTA — The murder charge against a Delta police constable following an on-duty shooting is part of a growing trend in this country, says one expert.

Rick Parent is a 30-year veteran of the Delta Police Department and an expert in police shootings. Parent, who has a doctorate in criminology and is an associate professor in the Police Studies program at Simon Fraser University, did his master’s thesis on the phenomenon of suicide by police, which garnered international attention.

In the past, Parent said, officers would, more often than not, be given the benefit of the doubt. An officer would write a report following an incident, and it would be taken at face value.

However, he said that over the last decade there’s been a growing trend where the public and the courts no longer automatically believe a police officer’s version of events. The trend started before Polish immigrant Robert Dziekanski was Tasered by police at Vancouver International Airport in 2007, but, he said, that fatality intensified the situation.

Over the years, there has been an increase in the number of police officers facing charges from incidents in the line of duty.

Delta police Const. Jordan MacWilliams was charged this week with second-degree murder in the death of 48-year-old Mehrdad Bayrami following a five-hour police standoff outside Starlight Casino in New Westminster in 2012.

MacWilliams, who has been with the department for close to seven years, was a member of the Municipal Integrated Emergency Response Team at the time, and one of many officers responding to the incident.

The Independent Investigations Office (IIO) looked into the shooting and last year chief civilian director Richard Rosenthal forwarded a report to Crown counsel.

The IIO does not recommend charges but can forward a report to the Crown following an investigation where it’s believed an officer may have committed an offence.

"It’s unusual, but it’s also a trend," Parent said of the charge. "If there’s any type of grey area, the officer is charged with murder."

Earlier this year, an Ontario judge threw out a second-degree murder charge against Toronto police officer David Cavanagh. Cavanagh, also a member of an emergency response team, was charged after his gun discharged, killing a violent suspect in 2010.

He was initially charged with manslaughter but that was upgraded to second-degree murder.

In a case closer to home, earlier this month a Kamloops RCMP officer was acquitted of breach of trust charges after he and other officers watched two female inmates have sex in a jail cell.

In that case, while what the officer did isn’t right, Parent said, he should be subject to an internal disciplinary process, not criminal charges.

However, he said, the growing trend is to see more police officers being put before the courts for their on-duty actions.

The new direction isn’t necessarily a bad thing, Parent said, however it could have a negative effect on policing. It could make some officers question putting themselves at risk when no one is backing their actions while responding to potentially violent situations.

"It has other impacts too. A lot of young people don’t want to be police officers any more…

"Regardless, at the end of the day, I think you’re going to find that this is a trend that is going to continue."

Delta Police Chief Jim Cessford said no other profession is under the microscope like policing. File photo.

In an open letter to staff Monday, Delta police Chief Jim Cessford, said scrutiny comes with the territory.

"In light of what has happened, it is important that we continue to be proud of who we are and the integral role we play in society," he said. "We sign on to this job knowing that we will face risk…

"As police officers, we are called upon to make instantaneous, life-or-death decisions. We sometimes encounter violent situations that force us to react in a manner to protect the public and ourselves. These decisions will be the subject of intense examination by governing bodies, who will hold us accountable for our actions for years thereafter. While no other profession is under the microscope to the same degree as policing, no other role in society is granted the same powers as the police. With our powers, we must also accept scrutiny."

A group of residents from Beach Grove and Boundary Bay sent a large floral arrangement to Delta police headquarters Tuesday afternoon with a card expressing their support for MacWilliams and thanking him for his sacrifice.

"Every day police officers put themselves in harm’s way and to receive public support like this is very humbling and gratifying," said media relations officer Sgt. Sarah Swallow. "It is rewarding to know that the majority of the public stands behind us and the tough, split-second decisions that we make in the course of our duties.

"The community of Delta has always been incredibly supportive of the Delta Police Department; but it is one thing to have a supportive public during good times, it is another thing to see that outpouring of support so strongly during difficult times."

Delta’s police union is also thanking the community for the outpouring of support. President S/Sgt. Ryan Hall said the department has received flowers, letters, emails and offers of financial support since the charge against Const. Jordan MacWilliams was announced last Monday.

"We can’t thank you, the public, enough as police officers," Hall said. "The support has kept us motivated and ever vigilant to protect our community from those who would steal from you, harm you or endanger you in anyway. We are committed as ever to your safety and providing for that service.

"We ask that all members of the community recognize our officer was on duty and responded to a call of a gunman trying to do someone harm. He put his body between this person and the public in the capacity he had trained for, being part of a team of officers who were working to protect the public.

"Everyday our officers go to work and make hard decisions," Hall said. "We support our officers when these tough decisions are made, and we thank you for your support too."

MacWilliams’ lawyer David Butcher called the case exceptional and unique, and described his client as a dedicated young officer.

"On Nov. 8, 2012 he was directly involved in rescuing a young woman from a gunman who had fired shots into her car at the Starlight Casino. In the hours that followed he was involved, as a member of the Emergency Response Team, in a standoff with the gunman," Butcher said.

"He says that he was acting in the lawful execution of his duties at all times. It is unbelievable he has been charge with any offence, let alone murder," Butcher said. "He categorically denies the allegation and looks forward to presenting his defence at trial."

MacWilliams, who was 25 at the time of the incident, made his first court appearance last Monday, and will be back in court again in December. He is scheduled to appear in court again in December.

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