Memo to Police: No Beatings Allowed

Interrogations series.

Canadian photographer Donald Weber took the photo above. He befriended Russian and Ukrainian police officers and in earning their trust they allowed him to photograph their interrogations. Detainees had guns pointed at their heads.  Weber said, “[t]his is standard practice, it is what it is. It’s the utter terror of a wayward bureaucracy.” Scrolling through the pictures the terror on the detainees’ faces is hard to ignore. This is the ordinary manifestation of the awesome power of the State – one small room with nowhere to go, just you and an armed police officer.

It may comfort some that these types of interrogations take place in far away lands and not in mature democracies like ours with a Charter of Rights and Freedoms. After all, we’re a constitutional democracy; a nation of laws, not of people and where we have a professional police and not rogue cops. Right?

And so, in the year 2013, it hits us like a bolt of lightening when the Ontario Court of Appeal releases a decision that begin like this:

Canadian society cannot tolerate – and the courts cannot permit – police officers to beat suspects in order to obtain confessions.  Yet, sadly, that is precisely what happened in this case.  One of the two police officers who participated in the beatings apparently thought, as he said, that “it’s part of [his] job” to do so.

It is not.

This decision will not change any opinions about the wrongness of beating a person to obtain a confession. It will however make people wonder why we still have police officers who believe that laying a beating on another human being is part of their job. Here’s what Detective Constable Jamie Clark, Detective Steve Watts and Detective Donald Belanger did to Neil Singh and Randy Maharaj, which Justice Blair reminds us wasn’t “contradicted or contested by the Crown.”:

Maharaj suffered serious injuries, including a fractured rib;

[Singh was]beaten on three separate occasions over an extended period of time;

D.C Clark … struck [Singh] on the back of the head five or six times and kneed him in the ribs once or twice;

During [the] attack Singh was pinned against the wall of the interrogation room;

D.C. Clark grabbed the appellant’s neck, squeezing his throat and slam[ed] his head against the wall…. The squeezing was forceful enough that the appellant was unable to breathe and felt that he was about to black out;

D.C. Clark hit [Neil] forcefully on the back with his fist several times;

D.C. Clark then began to administer another prolonged beating, hitting [Neil] forcefully on the back of the head and on his back many times – sometimes with an open fist, sometimes with a closed fist.  He testified he was in such pain at the time that he felt he could not go on and began to beg the officers just to kill him;

D.C. Clark reacted violently again.  He grabbed Maharaj, pulled him out of his chair, and dragged him into an adjoining room – undoubtedly one without a video camera – where he pushed Maharaj to the ground, fell on top of him, and began punching him in the ribs for an extended period of time.  At the same time, Detective Belanger attempted to grab hold of Maharaj’s leg and step on his testicles.  D.C. Clark added an oral element to the intimidation and assault: he said, “[O]h, you don’t want to make a statement? You don’t want to make a statement? You’re going to make a statement.  We’ll make sure you make a statement … I hope you’re tougher than your buddy.”  As the trial judge noted, Maharaj screamed loudly enough that someone opened the door, and the beating stopped.

Read that litany of horrors and think for a moment how these three officers who’ve sworn to serve and protect will set back the image of police for some time to come.

This thug behaviour masquerading as policing should make citizens question whether this is standard operating procedure for the Toronto Police Service or is it the exception. Are we supposed to believe that these three detectives just decide that day that they were going to beat a confession out of a detainee? Consider this: if it was the first time for this crew to lay a beating during an interrogation how unfortunate it was for them that the case went all the way to the Ontario Court of Appeal only to be publically rebuked for their conduct.

For almost a decade the law and order crowd have controlled the criminal justice agenda in this country. They’ve been screaming that people are getting off on technicalities, that the accused have all the protections and that police don’t have the tools they need to get the bad guys. I’d like to think that Justice Blair started off the way he did in an attempt to swing the pendulum back; to remind police and society that beating confessions out of people is wrong and to remind citizens that not everything will fly in our zeal to catch the bad guys. We as a society have established bright red lines on police conduct. Step over those lines and there will be real consequences.

We as a society have decided that torture is illegal.  If courts don’t throw out cases like this, police will continue to use this method over and over. It’s not like we’ve just discovered that beating a human being to extract a statement is wrong. This principle is well established.

Yesterday the Court of Appeal said police who are indifferent to a detainee’s rights and who use police state tactics will not be rewarded with convictions. A shame that police need to be reminded of this.

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