The Death of John Joseph Harper

The Aboriginal Justice Implementation Commission


Chapter 10

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Including "Race" in Police Descriptions of Suspects
Racism and the Winnipeg Police Department



Racism TOP

We have heard evidence that supports allegations that racism played a part in the shooting of J.J. Harper and the events that followed.

Constable Cross was motivated to confront Harper primarily because of Harper’s race. That should never have been the case. We heard evidence from Melvin Pruden and Allan that officers directed racist comments at them. We heard evidence from a journalist who interviewed Const. Robert Cross that racist comments were made at the shooting scene and that subsequently a racist joke related to this shooting made the rounds at the Public Safety Building. The evidence is clear that racism exists within the Winnipeg Police Department. TOP


Including "Race" in Police Descriptions of Suspects TOP

The City of Winnipeg Police Department Procedures and Reporting Manual addresses the use of race in describing suspects and states in Section XI, Media Liaison:

D. Suspect Description Release

Caution must be exercised when releasing descriptions of suspects to the media, so as not to malign specific ethnic or racial groups. This is most important when a suspect has been described by a witness as a member of a specific visible minority.

Nothing in this policy is intended to prevent the use of specific facts which may assist in an investigation where the suspect has been positively identified as a member of a specific group, and the information is intended to appeal to a specific ethnic community for assistance.

However, as a general rule, where a description is obtained from a witness indicating a specific visible racial or ethnic group, based on opinion of the witness, that description should be made in broad generic terms.

The manual then gives various examples, one of which refers to Aboriginal people, and states: "Persons of North American Indian extraction including Metis should be described as: ‘Native in appearance.’"

The guideline clearly is inadequate.

The problem with using race, such as "native," in identifying a suspect is that the attention of the police officers is directed to Aboriginal people generally.

There is strong evidence to suggest that merely describing someone by reference to race appeals to stereotypes held about that group. Asking police to search for a "native" calls upon officers to reach conclusions about how the person they are searching for looks, or talks or behaves. There is no commonality among Aboriginal people in their appearance, manner of speaking or behaviour.

Mentioning a suspect’s race does little to assist the officers on the street, in our opinion. If they are to look for people with a certain skin colouring, then we believe that the description of the suspect’s complexion should suffice. Aboriginal people come in all shapes and sizes, and have skin colouring that can range from dark to fair. It seems illogical, therefore, to assume that by stating that a person is "native," one can conclude how that person looks. If a police officer is directed to look for a "native" male, the question arises: What type of person is he or she looking for? The facial characteristics of Aboriginal people are not sufficiently distinctive from those of other racial groups to justify the use of the category in police broadcasts. The retention of such a practice will continue to lead to situations, we believe, where Aboriginal people are confronted by police officers solely or primarily because of their race.

To advise police officers that a suspect in an offence is a native is a licence to commit racism. That should not be condoned.

If officers were given proper descriptive details about such things as colouring, age, weight and hair length, they would avoid the kind of stereotyping that was at the root of the problem in this case. Cross, for one reason or another, ignored other particulars of the description of the suspect, seizing on the word "native." He stopped the first Aboriginal person he saw, even though that person was a poor match for the description in other respects and a suspect already had been caught.

Racial stereotyping motivated the conduct of Cross. He stopped a "native" person walking peaceably along a sidewalk merely because the suspect he was seeking was native. This then leads to the conclusion that race was a major contributing factor in the death of J.J. Harper. Race was one of the facts included in the description broadcast of the car-theft suspect for whom the police were looking. If Harper had not been a native person, Cross would have ignored him.

It is our conclusion that including the race of a suspect in a police broadcast of suspects involved in the commission of an offence is inherently dangerous. Broadcasting such information really does not assist greatly in police efforts and may result in the invasion of the rights of minority group members, as was the case for J.J. Harper.

We recommend that:

  • The Winnipeg Police Department cease the practice of using race as a description in police broadcasts. TOP


Racism and the Winnipeg Police Department TOP

Apart from Cross’ approach to Harper, there were other actions that night which cause us concern. Among these is the conduct of Hodgins in the handling of the Aboriginal youth, Allan. According to the statement she gave to police, Hodgins said to the youth, "You little thief if you hadn’t stolen the car none of this would have happened." The youth said she also called him a "blue-eyed fucking Indian." Hodgins told us she did not remember making the remarks attributed to her in the statement and denied making the racial slur.

We accept Allan’s evidence on this point. We found Hodgins to be forgetful and in some instances clearly wrong in her evidence. Her comment to Allan was racist.

Melvin Pruden alleged that when he was being arrested, a police officer, whom he identified as Constable Isaac, slammed him against a police car and called him "a fucking Indian." Isaac denied this. On this point, we prefer the evidence of Isaac, although this does not mean that we disbelieve Pruden on other points.

Other suggestions of police racism related to the Harper case arose out of an article published in the December 1988 issue of Saturday Night magazine. The story was written by Don Gillmor, a contributing editor of the magazine and a boyhood acquaintance of Robert Cross’. Gillmor did not attend the inquest but followed the proceedings and reviewed the transcript. He drew on his own experiences as a former resident of Winnipeg, his personal knowledge of Cross, as well as other research he did for the article.

Gillmor interviewed Cross the day after Judge Enns delivered his inquest report in May 1988. He had two other conversations with Cross. In the article Gillmor quoted an unidentified officer whom he identified to us as Robert Cross:

"Harper was the author of his own demise," said an officer on the Winnipeg force. "The natives drink and they get in trouble. Blaming the police for their troubles is like an alcoholic blaming the liquor store for being open late." (Exhibit 33, p. 50)

Gillmor said that Cross told him of comments made by other officers at the scene and subsequently:

"That’s right," one officer said, "bleed him dry," and another officer said: "If you’re lucky, that fucker dies." (p. 45)

Gillmor related other racist observations he had heard about during research for his article:

"If Harper had lived," one officer said, "he would have had a different version, no matter what really happened."

A friend of Rob’s felt it was largely a question of shooting the wrong Indian. If it hadn’t been someone politically prominent, it wouldn’t have become an issue. "Maybe they should give him a medal for shooting an Indian. I don’t really mean that, but you know, I mean when you find out what the police actually have to put up with every day. And everybody basically hates their guts...." (p. 52)

Cross denied most of the comments related in the article, both in his testimony before us and earlier to a Saturday Night fact-checker. All officers who were asked testified that they did not make or hear any of the racist remarks quoted in Gillmor’s article, except for the joke.

Nevertheless, because of his forthright testimony, which was not shaken under cross-examination, we are prepared to accept the evidence of Don Gillmor. We conclude that racism exists within the Winnipeg Police Department and that it was expressed openly the night that Harper was killed.

In his article Gillmor also recounted a joke which was being told around the Public Safety Building after the shooting:

‘How do you wink at an Indian?’ is a joke that made the rounds of the Public Safety Building in Winnipeg after Harper’s death. The answer was a pantomimed pull of a trigger. (p. 52)

Cross admitted to us that he had heard this joke but could not recall who told it to him.

Chief Stephen testified that he knew nothing about Gillmor’s article until counsel for the City gave him a copy. Stephen said he had never heard the joke and stated that,

I hear jokes and I don’t class them as racial jokes, the ones I’ve heard. They’re ethnic jokes, not racial jokes. (p. 3046)

The Chief said he had not recently heard an officer refer to Aboriginal people in a derogatory way but testified that, "I suppose at some time in my career I must have heard it." He testified that he "Just disregarded it."

Chief Stephen’s readiness to disregard racism is disturbing. He did not display much concern about the remarks reported in Gillmor’s article and apparently made little effort to investigate them. Similarly, there is little indication that he has taken action to assess the general level of racism within his department or actively attempted to discourage it. During cross-examination he was asked about racism within the department:

I don’t condone racism myself and I don’t condone it within my people. If something is brought to my attention, I would do something about it....

Q [H]ave you disciplined officers or cautioned officers in that regard?

A No, sir.... (p. 3226)

A chief of police and his senior staff must set an example to their department. They must actively let their officers know that racism will not be tolerated and that positive racial attitudes are expected from everyone on the force. There is no evidence that Chief Stephen has set such an example for the Winnipeg Police Department.

In the next chapter we will discuss ways in which racism might be better detected and combatted within the Winnipeg Police Department. TOP

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