The Death of John Joseph Harper

The Aboriginal Justice Implementation Commission


Chapter 12

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It is our conclusion that the City of Winnipeg Police Department did not search actively or aggressively for the truth about the death of J.J. Harper. Their investigation was, at best, inadequate. At worst, its primary objective seems to have been to exonerate Const. Robert Cross and to vindicate the Winnipeg Police Department.

We believe that evidence was mishandled and facts were obscured by police attempts to construct a version of events which would, in effect, blame J.J. Harper for his own death. Our review of the taking of Cross’ statement leads us to conclude that he was assisted in its compilation rather than being questioned. We have found that at least one officer rewrote his record of events.

The Police Chief pre-empted the possibility of an effective investigation by exonerating Constable Cross prematurely and unjustifiably. His conduct was just the visible expression of an attitude which was prevalent in his department–an attitude which viewed the public image of the police department and the interests of one of its officers as more important than finding out the truth about the death of a citizen.

Examining this case has been a profoundly saddening experience. We are left with an overwhelming sense of how needless the tragedies of this case have been. What started as an unnecessary, racially motivated approach to an Aboriginal citizen on a city street has had profoundly disturbing results.

Candor, sensitivity and professionalism on the part of the Winnipeg Police Department would have helped to ease the loss of J.J. Harper’s life. Instead, some members of the department resorted to actions which have badly damaged the department’s credibility and reputation.

To regain the respect of Winnipeggers–both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal–the department must immediately undertake changes designed to address the issues we have identified.

Proper and more independent methods of investigating officer-involved shootings must be instituted immediately so that no question is ever raised again about the propriety of an officer’s conduct or the department’s investigation of it. The City of Winnipeg Police Department and the Police Chief must accept that independent investigations of officer-involved shootings not only will enhance the reputation and credibility of the department, but are ultimately the best way to ensure fairness to the officer and to any other party involved.

Members of the department and leaders of the City of Winnipeg must accept the presence and importance of Aboriginal people, both as citizens and as members of the police department. The ability of the Winnipeg Police Department to provide proper policing will be greatly enhanced if it is able to recruit and retain more Aboriginal police officers. To the extent that we have identified those factors which have prevented that from happening, we believe that immediate steps must be taken to alter or remove them.

Members of the department would benefit greatly from having more awareness and education about the cultures and beliefs of Aboriginal people. Steps to implement initial and ongoing cross-cultural awareness training programs for police force members at all levels of the force are essential.

It is clear to us that the stresses created from this incident and from the scrutiny which resulted will linger for some time to come. Some of the individual officers and citizens involved undoubtedly will continue to suffer from the impacts of this tragedy. Other officers, we are certain, have felt the frustration that goes with overly broad criticism. The Chief and the department, therefore, must realize the importance of coming to terms with what has happened and take positive steps to put it to rest by showing that they are prepared to learn from this experience.

Society requires capable and professional police forces. We sometimes impose upon them responsibilities that are burdensome and expectations that border on the unrealistic. For those reasons, we must understand and accept that on occasion errors will be made and mistakes will happen. We do not demand perfection from our police forces.

At the same time we are entitled to insist that they perform their obligations and duties in a professional and responsible manner. Such a demand need not place any undue strains or restrictions upon the work and efforts of police departments. We have every reason to believe that the vast majority of police officers in the Winnipeg Police Department perform their jobs with a sense of professionalism that would stand up well to any scrutiny and which would do any department proud. The City of Winnipeg has enjoyed a long and proud history insofar as its police department is concerned.

This incident need not be a permanent blemish upon that history. It can provide important opportunities for the City and the department to begin a new era in which the citizens of the City of Winnipeg will receive policing services from an abler and wiser force.

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