The Death of John Joseph Harper

The Aboriginal Justice Implementation Commission


Chapter 6

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The Firearms Board of Enquiry
The Chief’s Statements


The Exoneration

The Firearms Board of Enquiry TOP

At 8:30 a.m. on March 9–less than six hours after the shooting–a review panel was convened to begin considering the circumstances of the shooting of J.J. Harper.

The Firearms Board of Enquiry is a departmental review body, among whose terms of reference at the time of the shooting were:

1. To investigate each and every time a member of this Department discharges a firearm in the course of his/her duty.

2. To advise the Chief of Police of their findings and make any recommendations they feel are necessary.

The board was composed of chairman Acting Deputy Chief Clark Peckover; Acting Supt. Don Wardrop; Staff Insp. Graham Stewart, the Chief’s executive assistant; and Const. William Kehler. The Firearms Board of Enquiry was convened on the morning of Harper’s death but then was adjourned until 9:30 a.m. the following day.

Although by the time the board met the next day they had examined reports from the officers who had been at the scene, they lacked many pieces of information. There were no statements from Pruden or Allan about what they may have observed at the scene. A comprehensive canvass of neighbouring houses had not been done. The autopsy report was not available, nor were there any reports on the analysis of the physical evidence, such as the weapon or the clothing of either Cross or Harper.

The Chief testified that he was sure the board would have received information verbally from the Crime Division investigators through Peckover. He also assumed that the board had blood and urine alcohol-level test results from the RCMP laboratory. He said that he himself was given those results only just before his press conference later that day. Nevertheless, many questions remained unanswered at the time the board made its hasty report to Stephen.

In that report, Acting Deputy Chief Clark Peckover wrote in part:

The Firearms Enquiry Board reached a conclusion that there was no negligence on the part of Constable Cross. His conduct in this matter appears to be above reproach. The incident would appear to to have been precipitated by the assault on his person by Harper and the subsequent struggle for his service revolver which accidently [sic] discharged, killing Harper. (Exhibit 85)

At approximately 11:30 a.m. on March 10, Stephen was given Peckover’s report and the reports reviewed by the board. He received no other information prior to reaching what he said were his "own conclusions" and writing on the face of Peckover’s report that he concurred with the findings of the Firearms Board of Enquiry.

Stephen immediately prepared a news release and conveyed this information to the public at a news conference conducted at 3:30 that afternoon. At that time the Chief also revealed that the Attorney General’s department had been informed of the police department’s findings and that a senior Crown attorney had decided that no charges would be laid against Cross.

Because the Board of Enquiry is made up only of members of the Winnipeg Police Department, it amounts to a panel of officers sitting in judgment of fellow officers. When it was suggested to Chief Stephen that civilians also should participate on such a board, he testified that he saw no problem with a civilian’s sitting on the board, but told us that he only thought about it a week prior to testifying before us. As to the suggestion that RCMP officers sit on the board, he testified that he had not considered appointing an RCMP officer, but then stated that he felt that it would not be a good idea as the public and others would say that even a former or retired RCMP officer is still a policeman.

The Firearms Board of Enquiry convened without having all the information. It does not appear that the convening of a Firearms Board served any purpose in this case other than to attempt to maintain a positive image of the police department and assist in corroborating an officer’s version of events.

The Board of Enquiry has no independence or separate resources to conduct an investigation and its report appears to have been a public relations exercise. It would seem logical that as an inquiry it should have interviewed at least the key witnesses involved, but it did not do so. The unseemly haste with which the Firearms Board of Enquiry purported to investigate the incident led to a negative public reaction in the form of newspaper articles and criticism from Aboriginal groups. It was readily apparent that the investigation was incomplete and that the desire to clear the police officer so quickly was inappropriate. That inappropriate conduct was compounded by the later statement of the Chief of Police clearing Cross and blaming Harper for his own death. TOP


The Chief’s Statements TOP

Even before the Board of Enquiry, and under the direction of Chief Herb Stephen, the police department quickly communicated its version of events to the public. Stephen instructed Staff Sgt. Don Peters, the departmental media officer, to draft a news release which was issued at 9:00 on the morning of the shooting, even before Harper’s family was notified of his death.

The news release read:

For immediate release —
Wednesday, March 9, 1988 at 09:00 hours

Shooting Incident

At about 2:25 this morning, a patrolling police unit observed an auto in the vicinity of 60 Keewatin Street that had been reported stolen at about 1:00 a.m.

The officers attempted to stop the vehicle which was occupied by two males who ran the vehicle into a snowbank at Winks Street and Alexander Avenue and fled on foot.

A 14 year old male youth was arrested after a short foot chase. A description of the second suspect was broadcast and about 2:30 a police officer confronted another male in the 1200 block of Logan Avenue who fit the general description of the suspect. The police officer was knocked to the ground and a struggle ensued over the policeman’s revolver and the revolver discharged striking the deceased in the chest.

A 36 year old man was taken by ambulance to H.S where he was pronounced dead on arrival.

A second suspect, a male adult, has been arrested in regards to the stolen vehicle. (Exhibit 86)

The next day, after receiving the exculpatory report from the Firearms Board of Enquiry, the Chief immediately prepared a second news release himself and issued it at 3:30 p.m. In this release he concurred with the decision of the Firearms Board and concluded that Harper’s death was "precipitated by the assault on the officer by Harper," and found that there was "no negligence on the part of the officer."

For immediate release by chief of police H.B. Stephen —
Thursday, March 10, 1988 at 3:30 p.m.

As you are already aware a patrolling police unit observed a stolen motor vehicle in the vicinity of 60 Keewatin Street at approximately 2:25 a.m. — March 9th, 1988.

The vehicle was abandoned at Winks and Alexander by two males who fled on foot.

A 14 year old male youth was arrested after a brief foot chase and this resulted in a description of a second suspect being broadcast.

At approximately 2:40 a.m. a lone police officer who was searching the area for the second male suspect observed John Joseph Harper walking east on the north sidewalk of Logan Avenue approaching Winks Street. In the opinion of this officer Harper matched the general description of the second male.

The officer approached Harper and advised him he matched the description of a suspect wanted for theft of auto and requested identification. Harper refused and continued to walk away. The officer took hold of Harper by his right arm. At this time Harper turned to face him and pushed the officer with both hands on the shoulders.

The officer lost his balance and fell backwards onto the ground. As he fell he grabbed Harper by both arms and he fell on top of the officer.

As the officer attempted to push Harper back, Harper reached down and grabbed at the butt of the officer’s service revolver.

In the ensuing struggle the revolver came free from the holster and the officer managed to hold the butt while Harper pulled on the barrel of the weapon.

The officer felt the weapon sliding out of his hand and at that time it discharged with the bullet striking Harper in the chest. Harper let go of the revolver and slumped to the ground.

Assistance was requested and Harper conveyed to the Health Sciences Centre, but was pronounced dead shortly after.

The Police Department Firearm’s Board of Enquiry convened and reviewed the details of this incident. They reached the conclusion that the death was precipitated by the assault of the officer by Harper and the subsequent struggle for his service revolver which accidently discharged. They found no negligence on the part of the officer and I have concurred with their findings.

The report on this incident has been reviewed by the senior Crown attorney, Bruce Miller. He found no evidence of a criminal offence and no charges will be laid.

The chief medical examiner for the province will be arranging for a hearing into the circumstances of this incident.

The officer involved is 33 years of age and has been a police officer for four years. Under a Department policy in regards to post-traumatic incidents, the officer is presently off duty. (Exhibit 87)

Neither the board’s report nor the Chief’s press release made any reference to an ongoing investigation, although there was obviously an extensive amount of information yet to be gathered. When the board and the Chief exonerated Cross they did not have all the evidence, such as the lab results or the reports of all the officers involved. The gun had not been fingerprinted and the canvass was incomplete. The Chief agreed with us that the investigation was continuing at the time and was far from complete.

The Chief said that he had no intention of creating the impression that he had exonerated Cross. The Chief testified that he only said he found no negligence on the part of Cross. The Chief admitted that his press release exonerating Cross of any negligence may have been premature and unwise. He stated that if a similar situation arose again he likely would wait until the investigation was complete, and possibly until after the inquest and allow the judge in the matter to make the decision.

It was obvious that the police department, and especially the Chief, was anxious to clear Cross and thereby clear the department. The Chief’s conduct in issuing the press releases was entirely inappropriate since the investigation was incomplete. Even the established guidelines were not followed.

Section A. of the Media Release Guidelines in the department’s Procedures and Reporting Manual specifically states: "4. Do not release information which may hamper the investigation."

Section B. of the guidelines states that prejudicial information is not to be released and that includes "speculating or expressing opinions," and "releasing information detrimental to the police investigative position."

The Chief erred in his hasty exoneration. The Chief should not come to a conclusion before an investigation is complete, and if an investigation is ongoing then the Chief should say as much and refrain from coming to a conclusion. By prejudging the innocence of Cross and the wrongdoing of Harper, Stephen effectively foreclosed the possibility of a proper, independent and complete investigation. In effect, he sent a message to his department that the case was closed. Only the most exceptional or reckless officer would have risked embarrassing the Chief by pursuing the case. We conclude that for all intents and purposes no further effective investigation by the Winnipeg Police Department was possible after the March 10 media release. TOP

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