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Lawrence Wegner

Saskatoon's shameful record

Marie Wegner

We have for several years been scornful of the local media's attitude to the Saskatoon Police, claiming the cops have received a very soft ride. We're glad to see the StarPhoenix shifting to a more critical stance. The Internet makes possible cooperation among truth-seeking journalists possible in a way it never was before. Joyce Milgaard's renewed call for an inquiry, the increasing numbers of wrongful convictions and the publicity they receive, and quick access to other journalistic sources make it possible to compare our police and prosecutors with those from other parts of the country. We come up shamefully short in a country where a lot of bad policing, convicting, smearing of innocents and imprisonment goes on.

Wegner case fuels cynicism about process

Whatever else can be said of the inquiry into how, when and where Lawrence Wegner died, it's hard not to conclude it has been an unabashed failure.

It missed on all three accounts.

The inquiry also failed to live up to the unstated but clear goal of raising the cloud of suspicion that has hung over Saskatoon's police force and its relations with the Native community since The StarPhoenix reported two years ago on the inordinate number of Natives found frozen on the outskirts the city.

In fact, other than to make the Saskatoon police force look like the Keystone Kops, the RCMP look complicit in protecting their city colleagues, and the inquest process appear to be a whitewash of the entire episode, it is tough to put one's finger on anything being accomplished by the proceedings.

We shouldn't be surprised, however. This is precisely what happened at a similar inquest held into the death of Rodney Naistus, another Native man found frozen in the same part of town within days of Wegner and on the same weekend that Darrell Night barely missed the same fate after being driven out there and abandoned by two city police officers.

What seems patently clear in Wegner's case is that from the very beginning -- starting with the time his frozen body was found and the actions of local police looking into the case to how the RCMP investigated Saskatoon police and how the coroner's inquest was conducted -- conclusions had been reached before any proceedings got under way and everything in between was meant to substantiate those views.

The desired conclusion seemed to be that the death was the victim's fault.

How else to explain the heavy contamination of the scene where Wegner's body was found? How else to read the differing treatment accorded witnesses in the inquiry, with those who cast doubt on the preordained conclusion put through a much more rigorous interrogation than those who supported the hypothesis that there is no one to blame but the dead man?

Even at the very beginning, footprints at the site were trod on or driven over by police coming out to look at the body -- in a case that should have been treated as a suspicious death. Wegner's clothing wasn't kept as evidence and, even though he had somehow made it to the middle of nowhere without his shoes in sub-zero weather, no clear photos were ever taken of his feet.

The fog didn't lift even after the RCMP task force came into the picture. Mountie investigaters required witnesses to take polygraphs. All witnesses that is, except for those who should have been the prime suspects.

The testimony of Dwaine Sutherland, who said he saw a man in a shirt and socks being tossed unceremoniously into a police car near St. Paul's Hospital the night Wegner died, was discounted because he refused to take a lie-detector test. Yet, three other witnesses recounted the same story. The RCMP had no difficulty, however, in accepting testimony of city police officers without requiring the polygraph, even in cases where the testimony was contradictory.

The inquest was told by one city cop that a 911 tape must have been tampered with or was defective because it didn't contain any reference to his notifying cruisers in the area of St. Paul's about a complaint from a woman that a man was wandering around without shoes. Another cop, however, testified that wasn't possible, ebcause the only way to change the tape would be to physically cut it and splice it together. Apparently no one was interested enough to ask to see the tape or require a polygraph of these witnesses to get at the truth.

A composite drawing made from a witness's description of a police officer she claimed had pushed Wegner into a patrol car never was (and apparently never will be) released so the community can try to identify him.

An equal lack of interest has been shown as to the state of Wegner's socks. Central to the man's death was how he might have walked six kilometres to his death on such a hellish night, when he didn't even have boots on.

Yet the question of the condition of his socks -- particularly in comparison with those of an investigating officer who tried to replicate the feat and found it destroyed his socks -- seems to have been only of peripheral interest to investigators and the inquiry.

The lead RCMP investigator first told the inquiry Wegner's socks were in a box he had with him, then decided this critical evidence must still be in Regina. Yet no one thought to insist that they be sent to the inquiry so the jurors could see them.

Given the inability of the entire process to determine the fundamental facts that led to this man's death, it's hard to disagree with FSIN senator David Ahenakew when he says: It was a destructive process every step of the way because . . . the truth didn't come out.

It is also hard to reconcile what happened in this investigation with Justice Minister Chris Axworthy's call to ensure not only that justice is done but that the public is satisfied that justice has been done.

Police Chief Russell Sabo has pledged his force will regain the trust of the community. This process makes that job -- and the task of regaining credibility for the RCMP and Justice Department -- a steep, uphill battle.

Democracy cannot be maintained without its foundation; free public opinion and free discussion throughout the nation of all matters affecting the state within the limits set by the criminal code and the common law.

-- The Supreme Court of Canada, 1938

FSIN demands new agency to investigate police

SASKATOON - Aboriginal leaders in Saskatchewan are calling for an independent body to investigate complaints against police.

Currently criminal matters against police officers in the province are investigated by other police.

The Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations would like to see a system similar to the one in Ontario. That province has set up a special independent body called the Special Investigations Unit.

All of our investigators are peace officers, says the unit's Rose Hong. We are entirely separate from the police services. We are at an arm's-length relationship from the Ministry of the Attorney General. We are an independent investigative agency that conducts criminal investigations.

There is a police complaints investigator in Saskatchewan. But he has no power to make arrests or lay criminal charges.

Recommendations will be taken seriously, Chief says

SASKATOON - The Saskatoon Police Service says it will review its policies, after the coroner's inquest into the death of Lawrence Wegner.

A jury ruled Thursday that there was not enough evidence to determine the cause of Wegner's death. His frozen body was found on the outskirts of the city two years ago.

The coroner's jury made ten recommendations dealing with police practices. Among them were suggestions for improved note-taking and 911 operator training.

Saskatoon Police Chief Russell Sabo says he will take the recommendations seriously.

"We are going to work very hard to do what we can to make sure that we do not have these kinds of situations again," says Saskatoon Police Chief Russell Sabo, adding he will take the recommendations seriously. "This is important to us. We want to make sure that our department is above reproach. We need the cooperation of all of the members of the city, not just certain segments. The aboriginal peoples are important to the Saskatoon Police Service," Sabo says.

Having said that, another inquest into the freezing death of an aboriginal man last November made several recommendations about police conduct. Sabo says all of those recommendations were looked at, but only some of them were implemented.