A heavily pregnant woman arrested after failing to pay a $50 fine; a driver tasered in the back while fleeing from a DUI test; a police officer given special treatment by his colleagues over alleged domestic abuse; a theft suspect who left the island even though CCTV caught his crime on camera.
These cases were among more than 100 complaints against police that the Office of the Ombudsman, led by Sandy Hermiston, dealt with last year.
In 2019, the Office of the Ombudsman’s two-person police investigation team received 62 new complaints against police, and inherited 67 other cases carried forward from 2018. The team last year resolved 105 complaints against police, with some of those cases dating back several years.
Brief details of a number of the cases dealt with by the Ombudsman’s office were outlined in the office’s annual report, which was tabled in the Legislative Assembly on Wednesday.
Pregnant woman arrested over $50 fine
One of the cases investigated by the Ombudsman was that of a pregnant woman arrested at her home by police on an outstanding Summary Court warrant for an unpaid fine of $50. Video footage of the arrest was circulated on social media, leading the Ombudsman to investigate it as a matter of public interest.
When police asked the woman to come with them to the Fairbanks Detention Centre so they could process the arrest warrant, the woman, who was in her last trimester of pregnancy, refused to cooperate.
“She said she needed time to get ready and then took a very long time to get dressed. She also told the officers that the warrant wasn’t valid. The officers immediately checked to ensure the arrest warrant was valid and continued with their attempts to arrest the woman,” the Ombudsman report states.
The report noted that after the woman appeared to resist an officer by sitting down, the officer pulled her along for a short distance. The woman eventually agreed to go with the officers, the warrant was processed, and she was released. The Ombudsman found the arrest warrant was valid and that officers had used as little force as was required to make the arrest, but questioned why the arrest was necessary, given the woman’s advanced pregnancy and her refusal to cooperate.
Use of Taser ‘unreasonable’
In another case, police used a Taser on a man who had been stopped for speeding and who fled from police on foot after an officer tried to arrest him for refusing to give a breath sample for a DUI test. An officer shot him in the back with the Taser, according to the Ombudsman report.
“The driver complained that the use of the Taser was unreasonable and an abuse of power which resulted in injuries to his face and leg,” the report stated.
The Ombudsman investigators found that the officer had grounds to arrest the man for refusal to provide a breath specimen, but determined that using the Taser was an “unreasonable use of force given the circumstances”.
The report noted that RCIPS training materials state that the use of a Taser, when a person is running away, should be avoided to prevent individuals uncontrollably falling to the ground. “Tasers should only be used to mitigate threats to police officers or citizens, and there was no evidence of a threat to the officers in this case.”
After the Ombudsman recommended that Commissioner of Police Derek Byrne consider disciplining the officer involved, a disciplinary hearing was scheduled, the report stated.
Domestic violence investigation policy not followed
In another case, the Office of the Ombudsman investigated an incident in which a police officer’s wife was allegedly held in her home by her husband, who was said to be armed and threatening suicide. Police were called and investigated the incident, but the Ombudsman found “numerous shortcomings”, saying the RCIPS failed to conduct “a thorough, impartial and timely investigation of this matter”.
“Our investigation revealed the RCIPS did not follow their policies regarding domestic violence investigations and did not properly involve the Family Support Unit,” the report stated.
The Ombudsman recommended that the commissioner consider disciplinary action for the officers involved, and that he remind all officers of their oath to serve “without favour or affection, malice or ill will”. She also directed the RCIPS to ensure the wellbeing of the officer’s wife and to review the fitness for duty of the police officer involved.
The commissioner accepted the recommendations. The officer was found to be fit to resume duties and the wife was offered support, according to the Ombudsman.
“The Commissioner used the incident as a learning opportunity for all officers and has circulated a service order regarding the requirement to treat officers no differently than members of the public,” the report stated.
Airport theft case highlights lack of communication
In the theft case, an employee at Owen Roberts International Airport reported her phone and keys had been stolen while she was at work. CCTV footage captured the image of the man who stole the property and she reported this to the RCIPS.
An officer initiated an investigation, identified and located the suspect. When that officer went on his scheduled days off, the case was passed around to numerous other police officers by various supervisors before an arrest was made five days after the theft, the Ombudsman found. However, the suspect was released without bail, was not charged, and was able left the island.
“Unfortunately, the arresting officer did not have enough information about the case, officers involved in the case failed to properly review the case management system and the suspect was released without being bailed. As a result, the suspect was able to leave the Island without facing consequences for his actions,” the report noted.
It continued, “The Ombudsman found the original investigating officer did his job properly. The investigation was thorough, the case notes were properly made, and he passed the details of the incident on to his supervisor before going on days off.”
The Ombudsman found that once arrested, the decision to release the suspect was “premature and the poor communication amongst the officers working on this case resulted in a miscarriage of justice”.
The Ombudsman recommended that the complainant be compensated for the stolen belongings and receive an apology for the investigative failures. The custody sergeant who released the suspect was no longer employed by the RCIPS; otherwise, disciplinary action may have been considered, she noted.
Backlog nearly cleared
In her report, Hermiston said her office had been “very productive” in clearing the “huge backlog” of public complaints that it inherited under a revision of the Police Law. Prior to the implementation of that legislation, complaints against police and related statements had gone unprocessed for seven years.
“At the end of 2019, only seven historical complaints (those made before the Law came into force in 2018) remain unresolved,” she noted in the report. “We are confident that these cases will be dealt with in early 2020. This achievement will mean that our investigators will be able to focus on current complaints, which will result in better investigative timelines. We recognise that timely resolution of complaints is important to both the complainants and the officers involved.”
She pointed out that many of the complaints her office receives about police conduct relate to poor communication.
“Sometimes people are not apprised of the progress of an investigation involving them. Another typical complaint is an objectionable verbal interaction with an officer. To help address this issue, our office participated in delivering 26 customer service presentations to RCIPS members of all ranks this year. Our presentations highlight the importance of clear and respectful communication when dealing with members of the public,” she said.
Of the 129 active police complaints cases before her team last year, 105 have been closed. The team carried out investigations into 28 of those cases. A further 22 were informally resolved and 10 were deemed to be outside of the team’s jurisdiction. Sixteen were assessed as having been abandoned because the complainants could not be located, and 21 were withdrawn because the complainants decided not to proceed. The Office of the Ombudsman refused to investigate another eight because they were classified as “trivial, vexatious or malicious”.