As we are learning that the Halifax police willfully acted to keep an innocent man in prison, the politicians responsible for civilian oversight of the police department are deafeningly silent. Meanwhile, unelected bureaucrats and lawyers at City Hall have attempted to keep the police misconduct hidden by a publication ban.
According to his lawyers, police “malfeasance” sits at the heart of the wrongful imprisonment of Glen Assoun for the 1995 murder of Brenda Way. Police had evidence that would have exonerated Assoun at least as early as 2006, but police did not turn that evidence over to Assoun’s lawyers or notify the court, and so Assoun stayed in prison another eight years.
This week, three media organizations — the Halifax Examiner, the CBC, and the Canadian Press — went to court to get documents in the Assoun case unsealed. Justice James Chipman indicated Tuesday that he will rule in our favour on July 12, and the documents will then be publicly available. With those documents, we will be able to tell the full story of Assoun’s wrongful conviction, and of the police misconduct.
But that court victory for the media came despite efforts by a city lawyer to keep some of the documents sealed, and thereby prevent the full story of police misconduct from being told. Over the past month, city lawyer Duncan Read successfully obtained intervener status on behalf of the police department in the case, and then submitted an affidavit from RCMP Corporal Roger Robbins that staked out the position that police documents should remain sealed. In court on Tuesday, Read argued that even police notes in the investigation of the Way murder should remain sealed.
But Mayor Mike Savage confirms to the Halifax Examiner that city council has never discussed the wrongful conviction of Assoun, nor has council met in closed session to give city lawyers direction to oppose the media’s application to unseal court documents in the Assoun case.
Likewise, the two city councillors who sit on the Board of Police Commissioners — the body that provides civilian oversight of the police — confirm that the police commission has not discussed the Assoun case, nor has the commission given Read or the city attorney’s office direction to oppose the media’s application to the court.
So under whose authority did Read act?
I put that question to the city’s communication department and received a one sentence response:
The decision to intervene was made by Halifax Regional Police, in consultation with our legal services team, ultimately all under the authority of the CAO.
In other words, there is no political oversight of the police department.
Moreover, the politicians don’t even seem curious about the case.
“I’m not particularly familiar with the case,” said Mayor Mike Savage. “I wasn’t in public life when it [the murder of Way] happened.”
Asked if he is concerned that there are serious allegations of police misconduct, Savage responded that “if there’s some indication that the police now did something wrong, we’ll certainly look into it.” Of course, there’s been that “indication” since Assoun’s lawyers made the claim when Assoun was exonerated in March.
Asked for an interview to discuss the Assoun case, councillor and commissioner Tony Mancini responded via email:
I am happy to chat, however I am not sure what I can add to the conversation? The Board of Police Commission did not discuss the Assoun case?
Mancini did not answer further phone calls from the Examiner.
“I am not sure I would be the best person to interview,” said councillor and police commissioner Lindell Smith via email in response to an interview request. “I am not very informed on the details for this case. This case has been ongoing way before my time on the commission as you are aware, and the only information that I have would be from what I have read in the media.”
To your questions:
The apparent police misconduct
Again, not being aware of the particulars, I couldn’t speak to the misconduct.
The legal position of the police department regarding the release of information in the case — what involvement, if any, the police commission had in approving the legal position
I am not aware what the legal position of the department was. Mr. Assoun was improperly convicted in 1993 [sic; it was actually 1999] and since joining the board last November there has never been a briefing on this case. It is my understanding that once a case is in the courts, the commission isn’t briefed unless requested by a member, and this would be in Camera.
Again, allegations of police misconduct were made in court on March 2, and were widely publicized, by the Halifax Examiner and other media. Smith and the other police commissioners have had plenty of time to request a briefing on the case, and more importantly, to direct legal staff.
Because the commissioners did not get involved, legal staff, supposedly under the direction of CAO Jacques Dubé, attempted to cover up the police misconduct in the case.
Where’s that civilian oversight?
We’re witnessing an astonishing display of cowardice from our elected officials.
It’s far past time for city council to step up and show leadership, and to get actively involved in the Assoun case to make matters right for Assoun, to stop legal attempts to hide police wrongdoing, to fully investigate police misconduct, and to hold those responsible accountable.
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