By Ivan Drury
No case has illuminated the blind alley of the police “public inquiry” more clearly than that of the 1998 police killing of Frank Paul in Vancouver. The Frank Paul inquiry, restricted from the beginning from finding fault or laying charges, has the potential of becoming a crossroads from which the entire corrupt policing and “justice” system can begin to be challenged by the communities they have brutalized for hundreds of years.
This potential was clear to the BC government from the start. Solicitor-General Rich Coleman made that plain in 2001 when he sent a letter to Police Complaint Commissioner Don Morrison explaining that he would not open a coroner’s inquest into Frank Paul’s death where “culpability, liability and issues of racial discrimination are likely to become the central features. (…) [A] responsible coroner would not permit the pursuit of those matters. Public acrimony would almost certainly follow.”
Police brutality – a fact of life in Canada
Between 1992 and 2007, 52 people died at the hands of members of the Vancouver Police Department (VPD). Not a single one of these deaths resulted in charges being laid against a single officer. Vancouverites have gotten so accustomed to police brutality that we take its existence for granted. When it is reported, most of us take the side of the victim against the police. Most people in Vancouver do not trust the police to deal fairly with oppressed people.
For evidence of widespread disillusionment with the Vancouver Police Department and the RCMP, we need only look at the public response to the death of the would-be Polish immigrant Robert Dziekanski at the hands and tasers of the RCMP at the Vancouver airport in October 2007. Anticipating inevitable outcry, news coverage by even the most corporate of media organs snapped up and played and replayed civilian video of Dziekanski’s death. The groundswell of opposition that followed exposed a deep rooted and convinced distrust of the police reaching far beyond the “usual suspects” of the protest world. A demonstration in Vancouver, initiated by people who were not known activists, was pulled together spontaneously through Facebook and drew over a thousand people.
Perception of public inquiry as solution
The demands of the “Rally for Robert” were limited to banning tasers, the specific weapon used by the police in Robert’s death, and for a public inquiry into what happened at the airport.
In Canada the call for a public inquiry means an investigation of the police by the police themselves. The Frank Paul case lays bare the fraudulent character of such inquiries.
The killing of Frank Paul
Frank Paul’s death is more typical of police brutality cases in Vancouver than Robert Dziekanski’s. It’s instructive to note the difference in media coverage of the police killing of a European immigrant versus that of a homeless Indigenous man.
On December 5, 1998, Frank Paul, a 47-year-old Mik’maq man, was dragged, soaking wet and unconscious, from the downtown holding cells in Vancouver and dumped in an alley across town. He was drunk and, according to the testimony of the police constable who dropped him in the alley, could not stand or speak clearly. His body was found at 2:30am in the same alley by a passerby.
According to the pathologist report, Paul had died of hypothermia accelerated by acute alcohol poisoning that he had likely already been suffering as he was examined by the jail sergeant who decided Frank Paul was not drunk. He was likely already dying of hypothermia when Sergeant Russel Sanderson ordered the rookie wagon driver Constable David Instant to drag Frank Paul out of the jail house by his feet and dump him back into the night.
Sergeant Sanderson testified, nearly ten years later that “anybody, a normal, for lack of better word here, citizen, Joe Q. Public that was not known as a seasoned alcoholic, if they had arrived that way, they would probably have been medically assessed (…) anybody in a suit would have been assessed (…) anybody neatly dressed would be assessed.”
A case study of the investigation of police by police
If Frank Paul’s death is sad and tragic, the investigation process that followed is frightening and infuriating.
The death of Frank Paul was investigated by Detective Robert Douglas Staunton, one single officer. Staunton pursued his investigation “in a way I thought would be neutral.” At the inquiry Staunton testified that “neutrality” meant he worked to not find fault, and instead worked to obscure evidence of the criminal actions of the police that led to the death of Frank Paul.
In contravention of police regulations Staunton did not remove Const. David Instant, the suspect in Frank Paul’s death, from the crime scene. He did not interview Instant, or his commanding officer Sergeant Sanderson; relying instead on their contradictory duty reports and prepared statements that were, in Staunton’s understated words, “a little incomplete.” He did not search for witnesses in the area Paul was found nor did he release a plea for witnesses to come forward. He did not perform any of the routines normal for a homicide investigation.
Why this “neutral” stance in cop killings? Staunton explained that unless, before the investigation started, it was already known that the suspected police-criminals “were absolutely guilty of a criminal offense, it basically served no purpose” because if investigators took steps towards prosecution “we would receive no information.” He explained, “that is a practice that the Major Crime investigators followed” in all 52 or so cases of deaths at the hands of the police in the previous 15 years. “We didn’t make judgments. We would just gather as many and all the facts that were available.”
Det. Staunton’s astonishing admission that police officers would refuse to cooperate with a prosecution investigation of the police is rooted in history: When the Office of the Police Complaints Commission ordered an investigation into fifty complaints of police brutality issued by the Pivot legal society in 2002, the investigation came up empty because, according to Pivot in 2005, “at least 45 Vancouver Police officers refused to cooperate with the RCMP investigation, including the Chief.”
Staunton’s “neutral” investigation in fact effectively paralyzed any process of accountability for the death of Frank Paul. Former Vancouver Coroner and former Mayor Larry Campbell explained that as coroner he would always take the word of the investigating officer over that of crown prosecution on the viability of charges, “I take the evidence of the person who was first – who was at the scene.” He did not account for police “neutrality” in the investigation of other police. The Police Complaints Commissioner at the time of the Frank Paul killing, Don Morrison defended the same “neutrality” when he opposed calls for a public inquiry in 2001 saying, “What do you want me to do, wreck a young officer’s career?”
The result of the VPD internal investigation was a slap on the wrist for each officer directly involved: a one-day suspension for Instant, and two days for Sanderson.
Complaints process uncovered
In the final days of the public inquiry, Mike Tammen of the BC Civil Liberties Association accused the Vancouver Police Department of cover-up. In fact, the cover-up was not solely the work of the police. From the investigation, to the Office of the Police Complaints Commission, to the Coroner, to the BC Liberal government, all channels remained closed against any investigation or inquiry into the killing of Frank Paul. A conspiracy of silence around Frank Paul’s death continued, virtually without exception, until early 2008. It included the NDP, who did not speak a word about Frank Paul until halfway through the inquiry.
The Frank Paul cover-up is only too typical of standard police procedure. In a document called “Towards More Effective Police Oversight” the Pivot Legal Society explains how complaints against police in BC are processed. The complaints process is compromised from start to finish, the Pivot document shows, by the watchful eye of the police as well as by the government and ruling elite that the police protect.
The report cites John Westwood of the BC Civil Liberties Association, “I have never met an internal investigator who is biased in favour of a civilian complainant, though I have met a few who apparently view their job as assuaging the complainant while taking the officer’s statement at face value. Nor have I assisted in a complaint where the police witnesses support the complainant’s account of events in opposition to the accused officer’s account.”
The Pivot Society calls this the “blue code between officers which undermines the public interest in police accountability”
Role of police in society
The “blue code” serves the underlying role of police in society as protectors of the status quo of capitalist property and property relations. The heavy arm of policing is exercised against capitalism’s victims – especially the poor, the sick, and racialized minorities. The young constable Instant, who dumped Frank Paul to die in an alley, described the process of a rookie cop adjusting to the demands of the job as “trying to work your way through a number of situations where what you think is normal and what you believe to be how things should be in fact aren’t. It’s not normal where I grew up that people sleep on the street in the middle of December, but the reality was we did have people sleep on the street in the middle of December.” He said that he learned from “experienced” officers that it was his job to contain and control people with “significant problems” like Frank Paul.
It is quite true that neither Constable Instant nor his colleagues create the conditions that killed Frank Paul. The set-up was carried out by the provincial and federal governments, in collaboration with the downtown eastside real estate barons who sit on block after block of empty buildings as speculation schemes, and with the big capitalists who juggle market relations to maintain a reserve army of labour in the person of people like Frank Paul.
A quick study of the effects of the neo-liberal reforms carried out by the BC Liberal government since 2002, or by the Harris and McGuinty governments in Ontario reveals the agenda of the government towards poor, oppressed and working people. These forces call in the police as shock troops to put down dissent. Hundreds of years of colonial genocide and repression have hammered people like Frank Paul in order to steal and plunder the land of the Mik’maq and other Indigenous nations.
David Dennis, the Vice-President of United Native Nations, an organization that represents off-reserve Indigenous peoples, said that Sanderson and Instant “weren’t represented by their police union; they were just let out to dry. It’s the brass that’s protecting the culture of the Blue Shield. It’s convenient for them every now and then to dole out a small head for us to cut off.” He explained how this scapegoating conceals “a structurally racist institution that reacts indifferent to the deaths of aboriginal people, period. No matter how many small heads you cut off, that won’t change that culture.”
Dennis sees this culture, which reaches beyond the members of the police department, as being responsible for the day-to-day oppression and racism that many native youth experience. “There’s a direct relationship between the way the police are treating these young people and the way that these young people end up getting dead.”
How the inquiry was won
Against all of these systemic barriers, a demand for a public inquiry came out of part of the Indigenous community in Vancouver; and an inquiry was won. A major factor in making Frank Paul’s death an issue big enough to force an inquiry was the work of Kat Norris and the Indigenous Action Movement (IAM). In an interview conducted in the last days of the public inquiry, Kat Norris explained how the government’s refusal to prosecute the cops who killed Frank Paul led to her organizing rallies that became a regular scene in front of the Vancouver jail. “What happened to him should not happen to anyone. The gall of racism just hit me. I just couldn’t let it go by without doing something.”
The United Native Nations (UNN) was the first organization to lay a public complaint about the death of Frank Paul in 2002. The UNN remained involved in Frank Paul’s case throughout the public inquiry. David Dennis said that UNN was interested in Frank Paul’s case because, he said, it confirmed “our fears about the polices role, the cover-up that occurred and the kind of the complicity of the provincial government to keep this death at the hands of the police suppressed for so long. We’ve always maintained the position that the reason the police aren’t solving the problem of the missing and murdered women is because they’re too busy arresting our young men and killing them.”
It wasn’t until February 2007 that the government allowed the public inquiry to go ahead.
Limitations of the Frank Paul inquiry
The very fact that the death of Frank Paul, which had been covered-up, lied about, and silenced for nearly ten years, made it to public inquiry is a testament to the strength and potential power of social movements. However, the Frank Paul inquiry can only be considered a partial victory for the movement that fought and organized for it.
Kat Norris points out that although Const. Instant “is being used as a scapegoat to take the blame (…) he was following someone’s orders.” And David Dennis explains, “There are limitations to the inquiry, and we’ve been really vocal about how it’s not designed to assign fault. But it can assign responsibility to people and with that we can take it further.”
The final stage of the Frank Paul inquiry, April 28 to May 16, focuses on government and police policy hearings. While the inquiry commission cannot place binding recommendations on the government or police, it has and will present a platform where demands can be put forward. UNN present their demands in the courtroom of the inquiry on May 1st, and IAM will be making their demands heard in the streets with a march from the Vancouver Detox to Main and Hastings on May 8th.
For both of them, the inquiry has opened a window to bring pressure against higher places in the police administration and government. David Dennis said, “In short what I’m saying is that we need someone like Police Chief Graham or Solicitor General Coleman to go down. These are the ones who knew about [the murder of Frank Paul] and didn’t do anything about it.”
Development of movement demands
In the gap between the accountability process that an inquiry is supposed to be and the token fact-finding and scapegoating that it has actually been is the space where change is possible. It is in this space that the same groups that had organized and fought for the inquiry are demanding further action.
Kat Norris wants “to bring the police to justice. Someone has to answer for what happened to him. Someone needs to be held accountable. I want for this to never happen to one of my people again.” For her, the inquiry itself has been “a sign of how much power the police and the justice system has over its own… they take care of their own. The police and the higher-ups are great friends. I’ve always said that just by instinct. But you can see it. It all goes back to land ownership and the corporations.”
David Dennis and the UNN are working out a more ambitious program of reform, beginning with “tangible things that can be changed” like challenging the provincial contract for the RCMP that comes up for renewal in 2012. One of UNN’s specific demands is for civilian investigations. Davis Dennis explains that civilian investigation is “a distinction from oversight; every time someone dies in custody, this group of civilians are enacted.”
But Dennis recognizes the potential problem of corruption in this civilian investigation body. Volunteers for a similar group in Ontario are mostly former cops. The other danger is that people who join also quickly join the mentality of the “Blue Shield.” To protect against these trends, UNN is demanding that membership in such a body be based on recommendations from Indigenous leadership and other affected community groups. “People who are there are our eyes,” he says. “It’s kind of one step up.” In other words, he hopes to connect these civilian investigation units with the grassroots movement and mass organizations that will fight to keep the units in line.
Reform and the need to survive
Both David Dennis and Kat Norris share a priority of the survival of Indigenous communities and people against police repression. Police racism, harassment, brutality, and even murder is a grim reality for Indigenous peoples, particularly those who live off-reserve in urban centres.
In an article published by the United Nations Chronicle in 2007, Melissa Gorelick quantifies the hostile relationship between the Canadian “justice” system and Indigenous peoples; “According to the Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics, aboriginals make up about 19 percent of federal prisoners, while their number among the general population is only about 3 percent [see note 20]. Between 1997 and 2000, they were ten times more likely to be accused of homicide than non-aboriginal people. The rate of natives in Canadian prisons climbed 22 percent between 1996 and 2004, while the general prison population dropped 12 percent.”
Kat Norris points out that Frank Paul “represents the discrimination, racism, murder, sexual abuse, residential schools, colonization that our people have suffered. He represents our people.” And she draws a connection between police harassment and colonization. “We’re suffering simply because the imperial powers desired our land. Once they realized the bountiful harvest they could gain financially, the greed started. They began the harvest of our children so they could harvest our land.”
In the face of this brutal oppression, oppressed peoples respond with strategies for survival. Their day to day struggle against police violence is an immediate component of the movement to get rid of police and prison institutions along with the entire capitalist structure they serve.
The front lines of struggle
The Indigenous community has taken on the struggle against police repression more consistently and effectively than any other community in Canada. The work of United Native Nations, the Indigenous Action Movement, the Downtown Eastside Womens’ Centre Elders Council, Knowledgeable Aboriginal Youth Association, and others in Vancouver points the way. They must not be left to struggle alone. They need broad and effective support.
Racialized people all across Canada are familiar with the club and gun of the police departments – whether you are Latino or South Asian in Vancouver, Black in Toronto, or Arab in Montreal. The same is true of the multi-racial communities of the hand-to-mouth poor, homeless, drug users, and mental health consumers in neighbourhoods like the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver. We should work to forge unified action groups between these diverse communities and cultures and their supporters.
White workers have a strong stake in supporting these struggles. First, racist treatment must be opposed because it divides working people and violates the human dignity of us all. Secondly, police are also the enemies of the labour and activist movements as they struggle for progressive change. Unionists who have found their strikes and actions attacked by police defending the bosses’ interests understand this well, as do activists who have been beaten up and arrested by police because of their actions for social justice.
The movement for a public inquiry into the police killing of Frank Paul holds an important lesson. Without a grassroots struggle in the streets, the demands of the movement – survival-based or otherwise – would not have carried weight. In fact, the street movement is where the demands are rooted, and where survival-based demands for reform can move forward.
The movement that Kat Norris has helped initiate has a potential to advance both the survival struggle and the broader movement against police violence, provided it is backed by the mounting pressure that only a street movement can advance. The breadth and strength of the grassroots movement against police brutality will decide how powerful and far reaching these demands can become.
1. Frank Paul inquiry, Feb 14 2008, testimony of Staunton (pg. 130)
2. There are numerous samples of this coverage
3. http://justice4robertd.blogspot.com/ | http://www.robertdziekanski.org/
4. Frank Paul inquiry, Jan 7 2007, testimony of Sanderson
5. Frank Paul inquiry, Jan 7 2007, testimony of Sanderson
6. Frank Paul inquiry, Feb 14 2008, testimony of Staunton
7. Frank Paul inquiry, Feb 14 2008, testimony of Staunton
8. Pivot Legal Society press release, Nov 3 2005
9. Frank Paul inquiry, Jan 25 2008, testimony of Larry Campbell
11.“Towards More Effective Police Oversight”, Pivot Legal Society, September 2004 http://pivotlegal.org/pdfs/Effective_Police_Oversight-Sept2004.pdf
“According to the Police Act, a complainant must make a complaint in writing on the appropriate form (Form 1) and include the complainant’s name and address. A complaint must be submitted either to the Police Complaint Commission, the Discipline Authority (either the Police Chief or the municipal Police Board) or a senior constable of the police department on duty when the complaint is made. Once a complaint is properly submitted and categorized, the receiver of the complaint can: dismiss the complaint if it finds it “frivolous or vexatious”; recommend informal resolution; or order an investigation.
“Under the current Police Act, investigations into police misconduct are generally conducted internally. That is, if a complaint is made against a Vancouver Police Department officer, that complaint will be investigated by the Internal Investigations Department of the VPD. Depending on the findings and recommendations of the internal investigators, the Discipline Authority, often the Chief Constable, has the power to take corrective action through disciplinary proceedings.
“The Police Complaints Commission is responsible for reviewing the decisions reached by the Discipline Authority after an internal investigation has been completed.” (pg.4)
12.“Six Recommendations for Policing Reform”, Pivot Legal Society, Fall 2005 (Pg. 1) http://pivotlegal.org/pdfs/Pivot–six_recommendations_for_policing_reform.pdf
13.“Interview with David Dennis”, Ivan Drury, March 26 2008
14.“Interview with David Dennis”, Ivan Drury, March 26, 2008
15.“Interview with Kat Norris”, Ivan Drury, March 27 2008
16.“Interview with David Dennis”, Ivan Drury, March 26, 2008
17.“Interview with David Dennis”, Ivan Drury, March 26, 2008
18.March and Rally organized by Indigenous Action Movement, May 8th, 5pm at Vancouver Detox (377 E. 2nd Ave, Vancouver) http://indigenousaction.blogspot.com/
19.“Interview with David Dennis”, Ivan Drury, March 26, 2008
20.Statistics on numbers of Indigenous people in Canada vary greatly depending on the source used. 3% is a common (though dated) government number, based on “Status Indians” and those voluntarily identified by census. Other sources place Indigenous peoples at between 5% and 10% of the population in Canada. Many Indigenous nations regularly refuse to participate in the Canada census, and an unknown number of individuals do the same.
21.“Discrimination of aboriginals on native lands in Canada: a comprehensive crisis”, UN Chronicle, Sept, 2007, Melissa Gorelick http://www.un.org/Pubs/chronicle/2007/issue3/0307p50.html
22.“Interview with Kat Norris”, Ivan Drury, March 27 2008
For more information on the police killing of Frank Paul and policing in Vancouver see:
• The website for the commission of the Frank Paul Inquiry contains updates on the inquiry and a complete .pdf collection of transcripts from the inquiry:
• Indigenous Action Movement http://indigenousaction.blogspot.com/
• Pivot Legal Society http://pivotlegal.org/
• United Native Nations http://www.unns.bc.ca/