20 April 2015

The Political Game of Stupidity #nlpoli

Last week,  the provincial Liberals came out of the candidate protection program to talk about the Dunphy shooting.  Liberal justice critic Andrew Parsons told Newfoundlanders and Labradorians that his party thought it was too soon to talk about any type of further inquiry into the tragic shooting death of Don Dunphy beyond what is going on at the moment.

And besides, as Parsons’ put it, “I think to just jump out and (call for an inquiry) right now is just playing politics.”

Liberal candidate Paul Antle echoed Parsons’ sentiments on Twitter.  “ For the love of God let's do what's right by the family and keep politics out of it, wrote Antle.  “Let the process and not politics determine the course and see where it leads.”

Too bad for the Liberals, then, that Erin Breen, the lawyer for the Dunphy family, made it plain last week that the family wants a public inquiry into Don Dunphy’s death.  They just want it after the preliminary investigations are out of the way.

The result was that the Liberal comments last week were monumentally stupid whether as politics or policy..

Let us deal with the policy first.

The Policy Imperative for an Inquiry

There are two types of investigations required automatically by law in the situation where a police officer shoots and kills someone. One is being conducted by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.  The other is the responsibility of the provincial chief medical examiner.

The RCMP are looking at the shooting in Marshall's Brook under the Criminal Code of Canada. Section 25 of the Criminal Code is the section that allows the use of force by police, including deadly force.   If you are interested, you can find plenty of commentary about this issue on line. Two in particular that you might find useful are a post at Ideablawg and the report by former Justice Frank Iacobucci  into a fatal shooting by a Toronto police officer.

The other investigation is conducted by the provincial chief medical examiner is conducting his own review under the Fatalities Investigations Act.   The Act requires that the medical examiner must investigate deaths involving violence,  among other situations. Dunphy death certainly met at least one of the situations and may have even met the requirement to investigate a death in police custody (sect 7)  if the officer had placed Dunphy under arrest for some reason or was attempting to arrest him at the time of the shooting.

Under section 25 of the Fatalities Investigation Act,  the chief medical examiner may recommend that the government appoint an inquiry in the public interest or the interest of public safety.  Under section 26, the justice minister may appoint a judge under the Provincial Offences Act to conduct a review within six months.

Part IV of the Provincial Offences Act covers these inquiries.  The judge appointed to conduct the inquiry then has six months to deliver a report.  Section 49 even specifies what information the judge must report:
  • the identity of the deceased,
  • the date, time and place of death or the fire,
  • the circumstances under which the death or fire occurred,
  • the cause of death or the fire, and,
  • the manner of death.
The report may contain recommendations as to the prevention of similar deaths or fires. The findings of the judge shall not contain findings of legal responsibility or a conclusion of law.

“The tragedy raises fundamental questions,”  former Liberal communications director Craig Westcott wrote last week in an editorial in his newspaper The Pearl.  It raises questions “about public safety, political management of the police and an individual’s basic freedom to comment on political issues and express dissent without fear of receiving a visit from the police or being blacklisted by the government. How the police visit led to Mr. Dunphy’s death is a mystery that has yet to be explained. That the tweet in question led to a police visit is disturbing. It contained no threat to the premier or anyone else.”

Westcott is right.  Once the RCMP and the medical examiner are done with their work, and even if the medical examiner recommends a judicial inquiry,  there are other reasons to commission an inquiry under Part II of the Public Inquiries Act.  If nothing else, it is so rare to have anyone in the province shot and killed by police that an inquiry would go a long way to establishing publicly what happened and why it happened. 

The fact that police came to Don Dunphy’s house to investigate a complaint from the Premier’s Office makes Dunphy’s death and even more rare occurrence. In the 66 years since Confederation, and in all the years of self-government in this province before 1934, no one who actually made a threat against the Premier wound up dead for any reason. 

Even if the inquiry concluded that everything was fine and that no one was at fault,  the value of a thorough public airing of the issues raised by the shooting is enough to merit an inquiry.
Those are not the only reasons, though.  Less than a week after the shooting someone sent a e-mail and leaked it to two local media outlets.  While the police are investigating that leak, an impartial inquiry is necessary to delve into all aspects of the e-mail, including the decisions by two news organizations to disclose it in full.  After all, the e-mail itself bears directly on an active investigation under the Criminal Code.

As a society, we would be remiss if we did not address the complex questions of freedom of the press and the impartiality of investigations in an open and public way. A public inquiry is the best way to do that, again, if only to acquaint us all with the considerations in newsrooms about what information they will report and what they withhold.  Such questions are rare, thankfully.  But they do arise in this instance, as with the leak 36 or so years ago of confidential police reports into a fire involving a prominent politician..

Then there is the relationship between the Premier’s Office and the unit that provides security to the Premier, cabinet and members of judiciary among other senior government officials.  The disparity in the number of threat complaints over the past three years,  the Premier’s decision to call the officer involved in this shooting with a pledge of personal support, and of course the very lodging of the complaint itself are all matters that deserve an impartial investigation and a public airing.

These are only some of the issues that an inquiry could address.  None of them assumes a fault on anyone’s part, although a great many uninformed comments have created all sorts of wild accusations. Rather,  the goal of a public inquiry would be a matter of finding facts. Those facts will guide whatever recommendations the commissioner or commissioners might make to improve public safety.

And with the whole thing in public, except for the few issues that might be matters of operational security, the public can be well informed by the results of the inquiry about the high level of training and competence of the men and women of the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary.. That is something police officers should welcome.

With all that in mind,   the Liberal comments last week simply do not hold up to scrutiny. If the Liberals were concerned about the issue of timing, then they could have said that the government should call an inquiry after the other investigations are complete. 

But they did not do that.  Instead, the Liberals attacked the need for a broader inquiry.

The Political Imperative for an Inquiry

The need for an inquiry is so plain that even the Dunphy family wants one, beyond the scope of the judicial inquiry, and once the other investigations are complete. That makes the Liberal comments against an inquiry stupid, given that they said at the same time Breen made her comments that we should follow the wishes of the family.

Incidentally, we shouldn’t follow the family’s wishes in any event,  in this instance or any like it.  The government ought to take it into consideration but, to be brutally frank, the issues raised by a death such as the one in this case are such that the family’s views for or against an inquiry are irrelevant. To let the family – any family -  decide one way or the other on questions of this magnitude would be a very bad idea indeed.  The government would be abrogating its responsibility to the public were it to do so.  It is astonishing that the Liberals would take such an irresponsible position.

What is more troubling about the Liberal comments, though, is that they quite obviously only decided to take a public position on the Dunphy shooting in response to the New Democrats.  The Liberals had two weeks to say something but only turned up after Earle McCurdy spoke to reporters.  Nor is it an accident that they attacked the idea of an inquiry as playing politics.  They were quite obviously trying to score political points against the New Democrats who had just called on the government to appoint an inquiry.

If all the other dim aspects of the Liberal position were not dim enough, this one caps it all.  The Liberals have nothing to fear from the New Democrats. There is no reason for the Liberals to make any political decision based on what the New Democrats do. Yet, that is what they did. All the Liberals have done in this case, besides make themselves look ridiculous, is to give Earle McCurdy implicit credibility he really didn’t have otherwise.

The Liberals would have been far better off – as the official opposition –had they called for an inquiry long before McCurdy did. Instead, they dithered. They waited around either to see which way the wind was blowing or because they could not figure out what to do. They had plenty of time to figure out a position.  There are no excuses for their long silence or for reacting to the New Democrats, let alone doing so with a n asinine position.

Once the New Democrats took a position,  the Liberals felt the sudden need to take a contrary position not as a matter of principle but as part of some sort of short-sighted political ploy.  That is the definition of playing political games.  It is also a sign that the Liberals have a problem, a very big problem that they cannot ignore any longer.