So let it be written…
A disturbing trend by some Canadian police agencies to not reveal the identities of homicide victims is bad public policy, and here are several reasons why.
But first, consider these recent news items. Police on May 8th reportedly shot and killed someone at the Departure Bay ferry terminal in Nanaimo while responding, according to the Independent Investigations Office of B.C., to reports of a “potential” carjacking.
The RCMP decided not to release the victim’s name, and the Surrey-based IIO – which is tasked with keeping B.C. police officers accountable in cases involving in-custody deaths and serious injuries – has followed suit, citing privacy issues.
Why a dead man killed by authorities in such a public way might require privacy is, I suppose, anyone’s guess.
Also in May, the Regina Police Service decided it will no longer release the names of homicide victims to the public, shunting that process off to the courts on the premise that the names will in due course be available to the public in courthouse documents.
That’s ignoring the fact that it’s especially difficult to search out a name when you don’t know what name you are looking for. The media, tasked with helping you better understand what’s going on in your community, simply does not have the resources to having someone sifting through all these court files.
I should also note that here in B.C., daily Supreme Court public access criminal case lists are becoming thick with the term “HMTQ vs Limited Access” where the names of those charged with murder and other serious crimes used to appear.
Another disturbing trend, but let’s stay the course for now and tackle that one another day.
Following outcry, the Regina Police Service backpedalled and will for the time being release the names while Saskatchewan’s Privacy Commission reviews the matter.
You can bet it will be a temporary stay, however, as the privacy commissioner reportedly agrees with what the police force is doing and has been quoted as remarking, “My death is nobody else’s business.”
Closer to home, in Alberta, a CBC analysis revealed that in 2017 the Edmonton Police publicly released the names of 60 per cent of that city’s homicide victims and the RCMP K Division released 83 per cent while, to its credit, the Calgary Police released 100 per cent.
Our own Integrated Homicide Investigation Team here in B.C. more often than not releases the names of victims but on occasion has withheld them. Corporal David Lee, a spokesman for IHIT, says the division’s policy is to release the name of the victim with the permission of his or her family, for the purpose of advancing the investigation.
In cases where someone is accused of killing their spouse, the victim’s name and even that of the accused might be held back to protect the privacy of the couple’s children, which stands to reason but certainly doesn’t cover the gamut of all homicide cases.
Lee said he doesn’t anticipate IHIT will adopt a Regina-style model. Good.
Now, back to that bad public policy. Homicides are not private circumstances, particularly if committed in public. When police refuse, on account of some blanket policy, to publicly identify the victims they are by default inviting the speculative chaos that is social media, where erroneous information spreads like wildfire.
The identities of homicide victims are not irrelevant. They were real people – someone’s son, daughter, mommy or daddy – and should not be handled like a statistic.
When the identity of a homicide victim is shared publicly after kin are notified somebody out there might possess information or insight that could help bring a killer to justice.
When people know something about the victim, with identification being the obvious entry point, they are more inclined to care about what happened to that victim and apply pressure on authorities to solve the crime.
Withholding a homicide victim’s name from the public impedes that scrutiny.
IHIT’s crest reads, in Latin, “Pro Inique Mortuis Justitia.”
In English, that’s “Justice For Those Who Have Died Unfairly.”
How does hiding a victim’s name from the public promote justice for that poor soul whose life has been unfairly cut short by crime, which is of course every citizen’s concern?
Putting a name and face to a homicide victim compels the public to seek answers and, where necessary, effect change. A steady diet of no-name homicides in the public domain would encourage detachment and, ultimately, public indifference.
In 1923, Lord Chief Justice Gordon Hewart famously declared that “It is of fundamental importance that justice should not only be done, but should manifestly and undoubtedly be seen to be done.”
I like to think that holds true today and believe that withholding from the public the names of homicide victims, except in extraordinary circumstances, does nothing to further that cause and in fact impedes it.
The secrecy should end.
So let it be done.
Tom Zytaruk is a staff writer with the Surrey Now-Leader. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.