CANADA

An unfolding tragedy

Suicide interrupts a justice inquiry

PEETER KOPVILLEM October 2 1989
CANADA

An unfolding tragedy

Suicide interrupts a justice inquiry

PEETER KOPVILLEM October 2 1989

An unfolding tragedy

CANADA

Suicide interrupts a justice inquiry

He waited until his wife, Jill, and his three teenage children left the family’s Winnipeg home at 8:30 a.m. on Sept. 20. Then, Insp. Kenneth Dowson, 43, a 19-year veteran of the Winnipeg police department, placed a phone call to a colleague, Staff Sgt. Rex Keatinge, and asked him to visit him. When Keatinge arrived, about 20 minutes later, he found Dowson in the basement—dead from a gunshot wound to the head that was apparently selfinflicted with his .38-calibre service revolver. Still running on a tape recorder were tapes of evidence presented at Manitoba’s native justice inquiry—at which Dowson, who had been the chief investigator in the shooting death of native leader J. J. (John Joseph) Harper in Winnipeg in March, 1988, had been scheduled to testify later that day.

That death, which occurred during a scuffle between Harper and Const. Robert Cross, set off a storm of criticism against the Winnipeg police force. That, and complaints of police handling of the 1971 sex slaying of an 18year-old Cree teenager in The Pas—which was unsolved for 16 years—led the provincial government, in April, 1988, to -

launch a sweeping inquiry into racism in Manitoba’s justice system. In recent weeks, the inquiry has increasingly focused its attention on the conduct of the Winnipeg force. Last week, following Dowson’s apparent suicide, many of his fellow officers said that the inquiry was destroying morale in the department. Declared John Campbell, president of the Winnipeg Police Association: “As far as we are concerned, it is out of control.”

Certainly, officers involved in Harper’s death have not fared well at the inquiry. Cross, who has maintained that his gun went off accidentally after Harper reached for it, has been under psychiatric care and appeared at the inquiry under heavy sedation after a psychiatrist warned that he had experienced suicidal episodes. Const. William Isaac, who was at the scene when Harper died, broke down on the witness stand while testifying that he had rewritten his notebook for the night of the shooting. And although the four-page suicide note left by Dowson has not been made public, Winnipeg Police Chief Herbert Stephen said that it referred to the inquiry—and he blamed Dowson’s death on the stress of the inspector’s impending testimony. Added Stephen: “I think there is no doubt about it. It

was definitely caused by the inquiry.” There is little doubt that Dowson would have faced tough questioning. Testimony heard during recent weeks has revealed a police investigation of Harper’s death that was marred by errors in judgment. For one thing, police failed to test Cross’s gun for fingerprints, which could have helped confirm or contradict Cross’s testimony. In fact, after Cross surren-

dered his gun following Harper’s death, it was handled by several officers during the investigation at the scene—obscuring any fingerprints that were initially on the weapon. And after hearing that one policeman had altered notes made during the investigation, the inquiry ordered a forensic examination—not yet begun—of all the notes made at the time.

The evidence underscored _

other recent, unrelated incidents that damaged the reputation of the Winnipeg police force. Const. Jerry Keenan,

38, was suspended last week after being charged with possession of stolen goods. And, over the past year, there have been numerous complaints about police brutality—as well as drunk-driving charges against three officers.

Among some members of the Winnipeg force, Dowson’s death reinforced criticism that the department’s senior officers have failed to recognize the stress involved

in their jobs—or the inquiry’s effect on morale. For one, Campbell, a 15-year veteran of the Winnipeg force, said last week that Chief Stephen was out of touch with the problems experienced by the rank and file. He added that officers are discouraged from seeking help. In one incident, Campbell said, an obviously troubled officer attempted to hand over his gun to his superintendent, explaining that he could not face the streets anymore. The officer, he said, was ordered back to work. Added Campbell: “That is the Neanderthal approach that exists in this department.”

But Stephen’s open attempt to blame Dowson’s death on the inquiry has also exposed him to criticism. Hersh Wolch, a Winnipeg lawyer who represents the Island Lake Tribal Council, accused him of repeating errors made in the investigation of Harper’s death by jumping to conclusions in Dowson’s suicide.

And Randolph McNicol, counsel for the inquiry, said that Stephen might use the tragedy to attempt to halt the inquiry—which was delayed for four months by, among other things, court challenges mounted by the police association. Declared McNicol: “It is unfortunate that the chief would attempt to take a very tragic incident and turn it around for the purpose of s either thwarting or impeding ^ the inquiry that’s under £ way.” Added Joe Guy Wood, & who assumed Harper’s job of z executive director of the Is? land Lake Tribal Council: “To

blame the inquiry because it

found out things is totally

wrong.” And by week’s end, Manitoba Attorney General James McCrae declared that the inquiry would convene again to hear its final witnesses in early October.

Despite the differing views of the inquiry, there were common expressions of shock and grief over Dowson’s suicide last week. Harvey Pollock, a Winnipeg lawyer who represents the

_ Harper family, said that when

Harper’s widow, Lois, heard of the suicide, she phoned him in tears. According to Pollock, Lois Harper told him: “This incident caused me to lose my husband, and now it has caused someone else to lose theirs.” While the tragedy may leave some critical issues unresolved, it also ^ leaves little doubt of the need I for action to restore both the £ morale of the police officers 0 and the public’s shaken confi1 dence in the force.

g PEETER KOPVILLEM with g MAUREEN BROSNAHAN Ö in Winnipeg

MAUREEN BROSNAHAN