Wednesday, July 9, 2008

The Big Story

The big story locally is the fight between a group of off-duty police officers and two black teens in Digby. At least, I assume it's the big story, given that I have heard it repeatedly in various forms for the past three days on our two local radio stations. And it doesn't seem to be anywhere near petering out, either. Even though there doesn't appear to be anything new to report.

Digby is a small fishing community along the Bay of Fundy. But what Wikipedia doesn't tell you is that Digby is "Home of the World Famous Scallop & nominated Canada's Most Romantic Town". Seriously though, Digby is a pretty little town (of course, in my view, just about any city or town with a harbour is pretty) and a great place to go for seafood. But it's a little on the ... um, shall we say, quiet side. As in not much to do if you're a young person hanging out, whether during the day or at night.

Of course there always is Club 98, which is, I think, about the only "night spot" in town. Fitting somehow that the street in front of the Club was the scene of this latest incident. Now, before we get started, let's get one thing clear - I really don't believe for one moment that this latest incident had much, if anything, to do with bored youth hanging around town in the middle of the night, getting into trouble. Oh sure, that's easy enough to find anywhere. And easy enough to pin the blame on any time there is an incident between the police and youth. But not this time.

This story goes a little something like this.

There was a group of off-duty police officers in town. For some sort of charity event, apparently. And as our two villains protagonists victims heroes young men walked down the street in front of Club 98, it is said that one of these "drunk" officers "directed a racial taunt" at one of them. The youth responded verbally, resulting in five or six officers getting out of their van and one of the group throwing a punch at one of the youth. Unfortunately for the officer, I suppose, he missed. The youth swung back and the officer spent the night in the hospital.

But wait, it gets better. Apparently two on-duty Digby RCMP officers were in the right place at the right time. Go figure this, according to the youth, they simply sat in their vehicle and watched, not responding at all until the off-duty officer was punched. By the way, the youth that delivered that punch (after being swung at first, you will recall) was tasered four times and then arrested. But not charged with anything. According to him, he was never told, prior to being tasered, that he was under arrest and had made no aggressive moves towards these officers, he was only backing away from them when he was tasered.

A little skeptical of believing everything a person engaged in a street fight has to say? Especially when their 'victims' were members of the law enforcement community?

That's okay. Because apparently we have it all on video. Video from a town street camera, that is. Unfortunately the Digby RCMP vehicle surveillance cameras weren't rolling at the time. The cameras, you see, only come with one disc, that is only good for a set number of hours. New CDs were on order at the time of the incident. And because the cameras weren't rolling, neither were the microphones worn on officers' lapels running. A pity, that.

So, what's next?

Although this past Tuesday, the Halifax Regional Police stated that they weren’t planning to investigate their members’ actions from that night, as
"We have no public complaint in relation to the incident and, at this point, from our investigation of what happened, no HRP member acted in an inappropriate manner",
they apparently have changed their mind and are now investigating the conduct of the off-duty officers involved in the incident. Off-duty officers who were from various areas of the Province, including Halifax.

And what a coincidence that the very officer who was captured on camera as taking the first swing and later ended up in hospital is a member of the Halifax force. Which has to make one wonder a bit, considering that it's been my experience at least, that investigations into such matters are always farmed out to other forces so that officers are never investigating the conduct of their colleagues that they work most directly with. That pesky little matter of justice not only being done, but being seen to be done, don't ya know.

As for those Digby RCMP officers, although Staff Sgt. Phil Barrett, the commander of the Digby RCMP detachment, had asked for a full investigation by the RCMP’s major crime unit on Tuesday, he now, apparently, is satisfied that his officers acted professionally and properly throughout. That they did what they could under the circumstances. However, he neglects to mention the fact that while those officers tasered one youth and chased down another, they failed to ask any of the other individuals involved (the off-duty officers) their names or detain them in any fashion. Funny that, too.

That RCMP investigation is underway, however, with the New Minas detachment conducting the probe with help from the RCMP's major crime unit in Yarmouth. So it's good to see that at least the Digby detachment isn't in the business of investigating its own officers actions.

Now, I am most definitely not a cop-basher. As I've said before, they have a tough job, one not many of us would want to do. One you have to respect. At least, I do. And it's one we demand expect them to do well, to do right. All the time. Every time. Which, given that there are actual human beings behind those badges, is no doubt a little unreasonable.

But it is unreasonable to expect law enforcement officers, even when off-duty, not to engage in the very conduct that they have sworn to impede? Not to break the very laws that they have sworn to enforce?

On camera, remember.

Oh yeah, one more little thing. Digby, the black community and the RCMP have a bit of a history, you see. It was a mere six months ago that the RCMP brass apologized to the Digby-area black community for the racist and sexist behaviour of a former detachment commander who has since retired.

Now apparently some very reasonable local residents have questioned why there was such a problem on the same weekend that several off-duty police officers from other parts of the province were in town. Good question, no?

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