CANADA

Police under fire

A Toronto shooting revives racial tension

BRIAN BERGMAN November 13 1989
CANADA

Police under fire

A Toronto shooting revives racial tension

BRIAN BERGMAN November 13 1989

Police under fire

A Toronto shooting revives racial tension

Tempers flared among the mainly black residents who filled a community meeting room in north Toronto last week. About 150 people had gathered to voice their outrage over the Oct. 27 gunshot wounding of Sophia Cook, a 23-year-old black single mother, by a Metropolitan Toronto police officer. It was the third time in 15 months that a white Metro-area policeman had shot a black person. In the earlier cases, two men died and criminal charges were laid against the three officers involved. This time, even as the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) began an investigation, some members of the city’s black community charged that race was a factor in the violence. Declared Dudley Laws, a member of Toronto’s Black Action Defence Committee: “We will not condone slaughter in our communities.” And the audience in the meeting hall responded with loud cheers and applause when another spokesman, Edward Clarke, added: “This has to stop. We have to start kicking some ass.”

The black leaders’ immediate complaint was that, as in the earlier shootings, the Cook case was being investigated by another police force.

Said Charles Roach, a black activist and lawyer hired by the Cook family: “Cops should not be investigating cops, because they are trained to back each other up.” Activists also expressed concern that the Ontario government has not acted on the seven-month-old recommendations of a task force on police race relations— including one calling for an independent inves-

tigative team made up of police and civilians to handle shootings by police.

But behind the high feelings is a long-standing contention that police treat blacks and other visible minorities differently than they treat the general public—often with tragic consequences. It is a perception that has plagued several Canadian police forces. Last week, black leaders in Montreal charged that city’s police force with racial insensitivity when officials announced the reinstatement of Allan Gosset, an officer who was suspended in 1988 after he shot and killed a 19-year-old black youth fleeing custody. In Manitoba and Alberta, meanwhile, charges of police racism have provoked controversy and two continuing public inquiries.

The Manitoba inquiry into the treatment of aboriginal Canadians at the hands of the justice system was the focus of particular attention last week, as a provincial court in Winnipeg held an inquest into the Sept. 20 suicide of Insp. Kenneth Dowson, a key police witness (page 22). In Toronto, the city’s new police chief, William McCormack, who moved into the job on Oct. 1, took the ^ unusual step of visiting Cook’s I family to express his concern g personally over her shooting. I Said McCormack: “We can’t conu tinue this business of ‘we’ and ‘they.’ If we do, we’ll have anarchy.”

The latest incident began on the late afternoon of Oct. 27 when Cook accepted a ride with two male strangers in a grey Oldsmobile. Minutes later, Const. Cameron Durham, 24, a sixyear veteran of the Metro Toronto force, ordered the car over to the curb in the northwest part of the city. A computer check of the car’s licence plates showed that the car had been reported stolen.

There are conflicting accounts of what happened next. By Cook’s account to her family, the two men had fled by the time Durham reached the car. She said that Durham leaned through the driver’s window with his service revolver drawn and that she was shot while still strapped in a seat belt on the passenger’s side. According to OPP investigators, however, Durham’s gun discharged during an “altercation” to with one of the men in the car. 5 What is clear, however, is that a .38-calibre bullet struck Cook N under her left arm and exited I from her lower right side. By late y last week, Cook—who had been I cleared by OPP investigators of u any suspicion in the car theft— was still in the hospital and listed cops' in stable condition.

While hospital officials refused to give any details, Clayton Ruby, another lawyer hired by the family, said doctors fear that Cook may be permanently paralysed and unable to walk again. Meanwhile, the police were still looking for the two males who had fled the scene.

Within hours of the shooting, McCormack called in black leaders and briefed them on his force’s response. The gesture won him only tepid praise. Roach, for one, called the chief “charming” but accused him of placing public relations ahead of more substantial black demands.

The black community, he added, would be more impressed if the chief expressed support for subjecting such police shootings to investigation by an independent panel of community representatives.

In response, the Toronto chief said that he would support a joint police-civilian inquiry, but only if the civilians involved had legal experience. Said McCormack:

“It’s ludicrous to suggest that you could get together a bunch of civilians and say to them, ‘Go out and investigate this.’ Where would they start?” He added that, under the present law, any shooting by a Toronto police officer must be investigated either by his own force or by another police force, such as the OPP.

Adding to the tensions was the memory of several earlier police shootings. On Aug. 9, 1988, a policeman shot and killed Lester Donaldson, 44, a black man who had been partially paralysed four months earlier after being shot by another policeman. Following a five-month OPP investigation, Const. David William Deviney, 33, was charged with manslaughter. A

date is expected to be set for Deviney’s trial later this month.

Meanwhile, a preliminary hearing is continuing into charges against constables Anthony Melaragni, 25, and Darren Longpre, 28, after the shooting death of Michael Wade Lawson, 17, on Dec. 8, 1988. Lawson was shot in the back of the head as he sat behind the wheel of a stolen car. Melaragni is charged with manslaughter and aggravated assault, while

Longpre is charged with two counts of aggravated assault.

Criticism of police handling of those shootings prompted Ontario’s then-Solicitor General Joan Smith to appoint a task force to study relations between police and visible minorities. Its report, released on April 11, acknowledged that there was evidence that members of minority groups had received unfair treatment. In an attempt to change that situation, the six task force members recommended 57 changes to

police practices and provincial regulations. Among them: hiring quotas to increase the number of minority officers on Ontario’s 121 police forces, and new regulations instructing police not to shoot at suspects unless someone’s life was in danger.

None of those recommendations has been implemented, however—a fact that clearly rankles black leaders. Said Laws: “Here you are dealing with the lives of citizens, and yet you have a report calling for immediate action and you sit on it.” For his part, Ontario’s current solicitor general, Steven Offer, told Maclean’s that he was giving “serious” consideration to the task force’s proposal for a joint police-civilian unit to investigate shootings by police, but he would only say that he will take action on the report “very soon.”

Visible minorities are plainly not about to let the matter rest. Roach and other Toronto activists planned to go to Montreal late this week to take part in a demonstration on Nov. 11 against racial attitudes among that city’s police and to protest Gosset’s reinstatement. And in Winnipeg, hearings were scheduled to reopen this week at the inquiry into aboriginal justice. It would clearly take more than unfulfilled recommendations and personal visits from a police chief to convince many minority-group members of their equal standing at the hands of the nation’s law officers.

BRIAN BERGMAN with BRENDA O’FARRELL in Montreal

BRENDA O’FARRELL