Another cop prosecution bites the dust. Four officers beat Otto Vass to death on August 9, 2000, and on November 12, 2003, all four were acquitted of manslaughter. It's not surprising. If we ever start betting on the outcomes of criminal trials, the smart money would be wagered on the police beating the charges. The success rate in prosecuting or suing police officers in Canada is about as high as the sucess rate in prosecuting drug cartel criminals in Colombia. I cannot comment on whether justice was done in the Otto Vass case, since I didn't hear all the evidence put before the jury. Far too often we react to police verdicts based on ideology rather than reason. But in general, it's no great secret that the justice system plays favourites and that the police are indulged like a mischievous child who can do no wrong in its parents' eyes.
The timidity of judges and juries when it comes to sanctioning cops gone bad seems to be a case of "Don't slap the wrist of those who shield you." We fear that those who claim to serve and protect may not wish to fulfil their sacred mission if we punish them in the same way we punish the common criminal. Yet if it's OK in the world of James Bond to speak of a licence to kill, in a world presumably committed to the rule of law no one has a licence to break the law - especially not those paid to uphold it.
Even when there is absolutely no doubt about the illegality of police activity, we show our true colours when it comes to punishment. A few years ago, two Toronto officers were sentenced to 60 days in jail for a conspiracy to plant cocaine on a suspect. Sixty days in jail? You have to be kidding. Sixty days is a kiss. Crack and coke dealers get penitentiary sentences. In the same year, I remember two Toronto men receiving sentences of 2.5 years and 37 months respectively for selling $20 worth of crack cocaine.
When the crack dealers were sentenced to the penitentiary, the judge noted that Toronto's drug trade "grows inexorably, like a cancer." When the crooked cops were sentenced to 60 days, the judge noted that the two "lost promising careers... suffering much humiliation and disgrace." Holy misplaced compassion, Batman. The only cancer here is the act of lying in court and planting evidence. This type of police misconduct has the potential to undermine our confidence in the fair administration of criminal justice.
The lack of courage to punish police gone astray has led to a strange disfigurement of our system. We may not convict police charged with crimes and we may not find police liable for civil wrongs, but we will set a criminal free because police violated his or her constitutional rights. We may be afraid to directly condemn and punish our police, but we have little concern about giving presents to criminals when the police cross the line in pursuing them. This is stupid. What we do with a bad cop should have nothing to do with the ultimate guilt or innocence of an accused, but in the absence of any other effective legal mechanism for inducing police compliance with constitutional norms we may have no choice but to be stupid.
Every time an officer is acquitted of a crime, many people will question the legitimacy of the verdict. In light of our track record, this cynicism is well placed. It is sad, though, because our cynicism often makes us forget that policing is a damn difficult job and that many, if not most, officers approach their work with integrity and commitment to the public interest.
In my opinion, we should be paying our officers much more money, and they should have the status awarded to doctors and lawyers. However, as a quid pro quo for elevating pigs into lions, I would subject these respected preservers of peace and security to rigorous disciplinary sanctions if they violate the constitutional norms that animate our process. If an officer enters a home without a warrant, I would fire his/her sorry ass. If an officer uses excessive force, he/she should be jailed for assault. Simple as that.
We must stop spinning protective cocoons around bad cops. Once we show courage in punishing cops gone bad, there will be little reason to question the legitimacy of every verdict rendered in favour of the police. The Otto Vass case should have had a clean resolution. His death was either a tragedy or a crime. The jury seemed to conclude that it was a tragedy, but many people, rightly or wrongly, believe that the only tragedy here is the verdict itself.
Alan Young is a professor of law and author of Justice Defiled: Perverts, Potheads, Serial Killers And Lawyers.