Friday, March 06, 2009

Time to become a reporter

The New Democrats have posted most of the 8,000-odd pages of material released to the defence in the B.C. Rail sale corruption case here . It's your chance to be a reporter. Spend some time, find something interesting and post it as a comment, or somewhere else. Wikijournalism, you could call it.

Can the RCMP survive with its credibility gone?

I covered court in Alberta for a little while. RCMP officers often testified. Sometimes, they were a little evasive or obviously coached.
But almost invariably, I assumed you could trust their version of events.
More importantly, so did judges and juries.
Now the Dziekanski inquiry evidence shows that is no longer true.
The inquiry into Robert Dziekanski’s death is on a two-week break. But the evidence so far has been devastating for the RCMP’s credibility.
Three of the four officers involved have testified. Their actions seemed to me reckless and unnecessary; their response to the dying man unprofessional. But those are judgment calls the inquiry will make.
Two other things have been much more alarming.
The first is the conflict between what really happened, captured on a video that has been played over and over, second by second, and what the officers - and the RCMP said - happened.
Officers will make mistakes given the quick judgments and stresses of police work.
But we expect them to be reliable, competent, honest witnesses, even in stressful times. We believe their notes, “made in their own handwriting, at the time,” as they say in court, reflect what really happened.
The three officers who have testified at the inquiry failed that test. And the false information they provided, in their notes and in interviews that night and the next day with RCMP investigators, was self-serving. It would probably by the accepted record, if a Victoria traveller hadn’t kept his video camera rolling throughout the deadly encounter.
Const. Gerry Rundel was the first to testify at the inquiry. He told the RCMP homicide officers investigating the death that Dzienkanski had waved a stapler above his head in a threatening way.
But the video showed that never happened. Dzienkanski picked up the stapler, but never brandished it as a weapon or held it above waist height.
Const. Bill Bentley wrote in his notes that night that “subject grabbed stapler and came at officers screaming.” He told the investigators that Dziekanski “came at the police screaming.”
Bentley said that as soon as they arrived, Dziekanski started backing away, looking for something to grab. He had picked up something and “kind of swung it at us.”
The video, he conceded at the inquiry, showed that none of those things actually happened.
Bentley also told the homicide investigators Dziekanski was “fighting through” the Taser so the officers had to wrestle him to the ground. That didn’t happen either. The video shows Dziekanski being hit and falling on his back instantly. Police jumped on top of after that.
Const. Kwesi Millington told investigators Dziekanski had raised the stapler in the air and stepped toward the police in a “threatening manner.” The video showed that didn’t happen.
Millington, who fired the Taser, told investigators Dziekanski didn’t go down when he was hit. He had to be shot again and wrestled to the ground by the three officers.
The video showed Dziekanski fell immediately. The second Taser shot came literally one second later as he lay on his back, legs in the air. The officers didn’t wrestle him to the ground.
It could be understood if there were small errors in their notes and evidence. It was a stressful night.
But police are trained observers. How could they recall three officers wrestling a man to the ground, or someone charging at them screaming, when those things just didn’t happen?
Either the officers are terribly incompetent, or they were dishonest. And without the video - which the RCMP tried to suppress - their stories would not likely have been questioned.
The other troubling aspect of their testimony was the statements by all three that they had followed policy and their training. They would do nothing different if confronted with the same situation, they testified.
The RCMP’s credibility is essential to its effectiveness. It is now in tatters.
Footnote: The inquiry is on a two-week break. The fourth RCMP officer will testify on March 23, when it resumes. Crown prosecutors decided against charging the officers with any offences after receiving the report from RCMP investigators. It’s not known how significant the officers’ inaccurate statements were in that process.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Not all sex trade workers are on the street

It's easy to fall into cliche and stereotype when it comes to sex workers. And false assumptions usually work to push many of them farther into the margins. Jody Paterson highlights a good example here .

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Heeding threats and playing nice with government not best course

Today, a lesson for everyone who deals with government, courtesy of John Les and the rural stores that sell alcohol.
The stores' owners believed they were being treated unfairly a few years ago.
The government had cut wholesale prices for private liquor stores, boosting their profits (at taxpayers' expense). But the rural agents hadn't got the same break.
Keep quiet, Les warned them in 2007, and I might get you a better deal.
But if the issue hit the media or was raised in the legislature, they could forget about getting anything done.
"One more question in QP [question period] or an article in the paper and it's over," said Les, then the solicitor general.
So the stores' owners stayed quiet, for two years. Until finally, this year, the owners decided they had been played for saps. Staying quiet for two years got them nothing.
It's a dilemma, for businesses and social service agencies and municipalities and anyone else who think they're getting a bad deal from government.
Play nice with the party in power, work quietly and hope things turn out OK.
Or raise the problems publicly, so the government feels political pressure to deal with the issue.
It's a scary decision. Government's have immense power. A school district or social service agency or business worries about reprisals if it makes waves. What if funding disappears?
Most reporters have talked with people representing organizations who feel they're being hurt by poor government policies, but are afraid to air their concerns.
Better to work within the system, most decide
The rural liquor agents said they took Les's 2007 comments as a threat. It wasn't right, some said, but they decided to keep things quiet.
It does sound much like that.
"All this talk and e-mails flying around is not helpful," Les wrote. "It will get out to those who are not helpful and a huge fuss will break out and I won't be able to help you."
If the store owners let anyone know they felt they were being treated unfairly, that would be it, Les said. They would be shut out, their concerns ignored.
Which is interesting, in that another group - an association of home inspectors - had earlier claimed Les threatened them, not because they went public, but because the premier with their concerns.
Les, the home inspectors said in a subsequent letter to the premier, had responded by calling them stupid. He warned that if they "ever wrote to the premier again, he would drop the issue of consumer protection for B.C. homebuyers." Les denied the claims.
Here's where the lesson gets meaningful. The home inspectors went public, made their case and, after almost three years, won their goal - licensing and government regulation.
The liquor agents played along with Les and the Liberals. They got nothing. While the private liquor stores - much better politically connected - have received financial help from the government, the liquor agents have been left out of the generosity. (That's probably the right decision. The businesses signed on to sell liquor based on the existing price structure. If they don't like the deal, they can give up the business.)
It's an example that others should consider, especially as we head into what looks like a year of cuts to services and supports. The politicians from the party in power always urge silence and patience. Just work with us, they say. And behind the vague promises, lies the implied threat that making waves will kill any hopes of progress on the issue.
But it didn't work out that way in these examples.
Which seems understandable. Governments are moved by public pressure. And as long as problems are hushed up, they're more apt to ignore them and concentrate on other priorities.
Working to persuade government is useful. But the threat of a little public heat can help make things happen as well.
Footnote: Meanwhile, Les remains under investigation by a special prosecutor in relations to land deals when he was mayor of Chilliwack in the 1990s. A special prosecutor has been on the case for 20 months. It is unfair to the public - and especially to Les - that the investigation is taken so long to come up with any conclusions.

Taxpayers supporting Liberal attack campaign

Here's what the NDP transportation critic said about the Port Mann bridge project in question period yesterday.

M. Karagianis: Well, the minister cannot be serious about that. But listen. The reality is the project is late, it's massively over budget, and the financing scheme has collapsed. This isn't just a failure, but it's an embarrassment for the minister and it's also a colossal waste of taxpayers' money. My question to the minister is simply: will he reveal to British Columbians the cost of this embarrassing failure? How much are we paying because he ignored the warnings, blindly pursued a privatization scheme, wasted time on his failed financing deal and pushed the costs through the roof?

And here's the resulting news release from the Liberal caucus, produced by government employees.

BC Liberal Government Caucus

For Immediate Release
March 2, 2009


VICTORIA -NDP transportation critic Maurine Karagianis continues to reject the new Port Mann Bridge and the 8,000 jobs that will be created during construction.
The NDP's opposition to the bridge was reconfirmed in today's Question Period at the B.C. Legislature, when Karagianis called the Port Mann Bridge project: "...a colossal waste of taxpayers' money."

It seems dishonest, the kind of activity that brings politics and politicians into disrepute.
And it raises the question of why, when the government is citing a desperate need to cut spending, taxpayers' money is being used for this kind of activity instead of for health care or commun ity safety.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Now you can be in the scrums

The NDP has started mining the 8,000 pages of FOI material that defence lawyers in the B.C. Rail corruption trial obtained from the government. The first revelations dealt with the public affairs bureau tactics in controlling the news agenda when the legislature is sitting and allegations government employees are working on Liberal party fundraising. You can check Hansard for today's question period to get the highlights, or go here .
But I wanted to draw your attention's video of Attorney General Wally Opall's response to the issue. Sean Holman has begun posting video from scrums. It's a great service. People can now see exactly what their elected representatives are saying about the issues, no matter where they are in the province. And instead of half-a-dozen reporters assessing the answers, experts and those on the front lines can respond to the politicians' claims.
It is a great step forward in political reporting.