“The message has to be sent that officers can’t put the public at risk by driving in this manner” (Prosecutor), but what message is sent when others travelling at higher speeds are not charged?
Consistency in the application of the law is critical to the justice system not being viewed as hypocritical and corrupt. When one set of circumstances results in a conviction a similar set of circumstances cannot lead to something vastly different.
On December 21, 2015 Haldimand OPP Constable Lauren Cheeseman was pursuing a bank robber at speeds of up to 170 km/h. She was operating an unmarked cruiser and did not activate her emergency lights or siren. The bank robber’s vehicle eventually struck another vehicle causing injuries to an occupant of the struck vehicle. Following an investigation by Ontario’s SIU Constable Cheeseman was charged with one count each of criminal negligence causing bodily harm and dangerous driving causing bodily harm.
In a recent sentencing hearing the prosecutor, Katie Doherty, called the Constable’s speed “outrageous”. Yet the defense lawyer emphasized that the bank robber had “produced a gun and threatened to kill somebody…” . Was the officer supposed to “…let an armed bank robber driving erratically get away and possibly harm someone in another robbery?”. It would seem to be a question that needed consideration. There must be instances where the public’s safety is jeopardized by police but, in the balance, the situation cannot be avoided. It becomes important to study each incident in detail and without bias. Rarely is that possible in a courtroom when both the prosecution and defense are not interested in providing an even-handed assessment of the case.
In contrast to the charge against Constable Cheeseman a collision with very similar circumstances occurred a number of years ago where the speeding officer was not charged, but an innocent driver was convicted.
In 2007 Gorski Consulting was involved in a case involving two speeding cruisers from the Elgin OPP detachment. The first cruiser, travelling westbound, was fully marked and was driving with lights and siren to an emergency along a paved rural highway. A substantial distance behind the first cruiser was an unmarked cruiser also travelling with lights and siren. The important fact was that the cruisers were travelling at about 200 km/h. An elderly female in an SUV was also travelling westbound ahead of the cruisers and she was approaching an uncontrolled intersection where she intended to turn left. There was a hill-crest about 250 metres before the intersection such that the elderly woman’s view of the cruisers behind her was limited. As she approached her turn she heard a siren and then a flash of light as the first cruiser blasted past her vehicle. Somewhat shaken she managed to pull her vehicle slightly to the right and then checked her driver’s side mirror. She observed a small white vehicle in the distance that did not register as anything significant. It did not look like a police cruiser and its great distance behind her led her to believe it was irrelevant. So she steered back into the roadway and commenced her turn. The small white vehicle was actually the second, unmarked police cruiser. As she commenced her turn the female officer in the second cruiser slammed on her brakes and slid resulting in a substantial speed loss before the cruiser collided with the left side of the SUV. Both vehicles then travelled into the roadside ditch.
The problems with this case commenced when the person assigned to investigate the incident was the Shift Sergeant who would have been responsible for the actions of the two officers. In his assessment the Sergeant deemed that the speed of the cruisers had no relevance to the collision and it was the elderly driver’s fault for failing to pull over to allow the cruisers to pass. He did not consider what the elderly woman was capable of seeing through her driver’s side window and whether the cruiser’s profile and lights could be detected at the substantial viewing distance. He did not consider whether the extreme speed of the first cruiser allowed the elderly driver sufficient time to detect it and to move to the right and stop, as required by law. An unbiased approach would have demonstrated that what the elderly woman reported, only seeing an irrelevant white car, was most likely what she was capable of detecting given the circumstances. The fact that the elderly driver was not killed in the collision was mostly luck as the collision was of sufficient severity that a direct contact with her driver’s door could have been lethal.The Crown Prosecutor had an opportunity to examine the police evidence and recognize the bias that existed yet he proceeded with the prosecution of the charge. At trial a series of incredible actions took place, in a purposeful manner, in our view, to prevent testimony in the elderly driver’s defense. The Justice of the Peace refused to allow evidence to be presented that demonstrated the bias of the police investigation. A subsequent complaint was filed with the Ontario Civilian Commission on Police Services and to the Attorney General. Both of these complaints led to no actions being taken.
There were failures in the actions of all officials involved. The two police officers who were speeding towards an emergency situation made an understandable mistake of travelling too quickly without being sufficiently aware that the travelling public could not react effectively to their incredible speeds. While the police actions were mistaken they could have been accepted given the quick actions that need to be taken when emergencies unfold. Rather than taking this approach, an attempt was made to cover up those mistakes. The prosecutor failed to recognize the bias of the police investigation and proceeded with a charge that had no factual basis. The actions of the Justice of the Peace were also inexcusable as he failed to allow evidence to be brought before the court that would officially document the problems with the police investigation. The Ontario Civilian Commission and the Attorney General’s offices failed to accept receipt of documentation of the complaint. All these failures led to the conviction of an innocent elderly woman whose family who became disgusted with the proceedings.
These are the frames upon which negative perceptions of the police and justice system are laid. It takes considerable time for the turbulence from such injustices to subside. In many instances the events are retold informally among family members, acquaintances, and in other discussions that are not registered by the police community or justice system. When there is propaganda aimed at improving the image of the police and justice system, it is these actions that are the reminders to the public of the hypocrisy that they reflect. Cooperation and support by the public in general is vital to police operations. All must work together to maintain an orderly society, prevent crime and bring criminals to justice. A preaching to the choir of police supporters without the inclusion of major segments of society, and failing to recognize inherent problems with police and the justice system is unhealthy, inefficient and destructive.
However, a just result also applies to how police are treated and how their actions are judged. The injustice shown in the above-noted example becomes the catalyst for the public’s cynicism and unwillingness to be tolerant of a police officer’s honest mistake. Those who have experienced an injustice or have been told of it develop a bias that is difficult to extinguish. These harsh reactions only lead police to hide their imperfections. Our society is not prepared to accept the reality that police are only a reflection of itself, with all its warts and wrinkles. A healthy environment would allow those imperfections to be openly revealed without the extreme consequences that are presently being imposed.
The differences in the justice system’s reaction to the actions of Constable Lauren Cheeseman and its reaction to the historic example noted above highlights a discrepancy. Constable Cheeseman’s cruiser did not strike any other vehicle. It was the bank robber’s vehicle that was involved in the collision. In contrast the police officer in the historic example was the one who collided with the elderly driver’s vehicle. Constable Cheeseman did not activate her emergency lights and siren and this could be viewed as the increased danger of her actions. However, the ghost vehicle in the historical example might as well have been running with no lights or siren because of the lack of warning it provided to the elderly driver under the circumstances of the case. Coming over a hill-crest and observing a vehicle ahead that was approaching an intersection the Constable in the historic example should have recognized that her speed and the hill-crest would have given the elderly driver a limited amount of time to detect the special status of her vehicle. Proper training should have provided her with information that a ghost vehicle may not be detected as a proper police vehicle and proper training should have instructed her about the effect that a hill-crest would have on reducing a unsuspecting driver’s reaction to her presence. Furthermore there has been sufficient evidence in existence for decades about the inability of drivers to hear a siren or detect where it is coming from and this fact should have been included in the Constable’s training. These differences should make one question why Constable Cheeseman’s actions were so much more dangerous than the actions of the constable in the historical example.
This discussion demonstrates a need for a two-pronged change. On the one hand police wrong-doing cannot be hidden by police, prosecutors and the courts. When such inappropriate actions take place there must be a meaningful process that assures that all officials in the justice system, regardless of their rank or position, are held responsible. Secondly, change must occur in the severity with which police officers, or any members of the justice system, are punished for mistakes that have been revealed. Members of the justice system who admit to making honest mistakes are exactly the types of persons that should be members of the justice system. In contrast lying and deception cannot be accepted. But society is partially at fault for the cover-ups that occur when even the smallest signs of failure could mean the end of a long career of honesty and good deeds.