Police violence is an epidemic in Canada, and consequences for misconduct are virtually non-existent. This we know.
What we don’t understand is why municipalities so often appear afraid to cross their police forces. Across Canada, city officials cover for bad cops, going against the interests of the residents who elected them.
This is the story of one of them.
- Barrie police, mayor won’t identify cop who beat skateboarder
- Investigation: Montreal journalists face police intimidation, brutality when reporting at protests
Barrie’s invisible mayor
If you were the mayor of a city where one of your police officers was caught on camera beating a young man for no reason, would you cover for the cop?
What if that cop was a school resource officer, authorized by your city to use coercive force on minors in four local schools?
Would you refuse to even disclose the name of the officer and duck all interview requests while ignoring constituents who took to social media to demand answers?
That’s what Jeff Lehman did last month.
Elected to his third term as mayor of Barrie, Ontario, in 2018 with over 90 per cent of the vote, Lehman projects a folksy, down-to-earth charm, from his “Mayor Jeff” Twitter handle to the regular updates he provides on COVID-19.
He’s also the poster boy for why nothing ever changes.
In early February, a Barrie police officer violently assaulted a 20-year-old skateboarder who may have complained about a ticket he received. The whole thing was captured on video and went viral. It even made TMZ.
At the time, Lehman was outraged. “This will be fully investigated. I won’t be ignoring this, and once we have all the details, there will be full accountability,” he tweeted.
During this time, I wanted to know if the mayor would release the name of the violent cop. The purported identity of the officer was circulating widely on social media, but the city refused to confirm it.
This matters because without verification, media outlets can’t report his name. If a media outlet were to report his name, and it turned out to be the wrong man, the outlet would be vulnerable to a lawsuit. So without official confirmation, or witnesses who know the man personally and can identify him, his name isn’t reported.
For three long weeks, the identity of this officer remained unconfirmed and unreportable because Lehman refused to be transparent with his constituents.
Thankfully, Simcoe.com reported last week that they had confirmed with a source that the officer is veteran constable Jason Stamp.
This cop is a public servant, and his salary is paid by the taxpayers of Barrie. The mayor is also a public servant whose salary is paid by the good people of Barrie, and his job is to represent their interests. It is clearly in the public interest for residents to know the name of a police officer who has so flagrantly violated his oath to serve the public.
Duck and cower
Stamp is a school resource officer at a number of area schools, where he works directly with children. Barrie residents want to know if a violent offender with a gun has been in a position to impose discipline on their children. They have a right to know.
But Mayor Jeff wouldn’t tell them, leaving it to underresourced media outlets to spend weeks chasing down witnesses. As a result, none of the contemporaneous coverage of this incident included the officer’s name — a serious affront to the public’s right to know.
I sent an interview request to four email addresses associated with the mayor and his staff when I wrote my first story on this case. No response. The mayor ducked interview requests from all the major outlets covering this affair.
That story, about the mayor and police force’s failure to identify the officer, was read by thousands of people. Millions have now seen the footage of the assault.
So I tried again several weeks later. Surely now the mayor would have something to say, some update on the investigation he had promised, some explanation for his constituents of why he was trying to withhold the name of a public servant who violated their trust.
Four more emails. I even tweeted at the mayor, because I know he’s on top of his social media.
I’m not sure if it’s fear of backlash from the police, genuine support for their actions, or both, combined with the fact he couldn’t lose the next election if he shot someone on Facebook Live. What I do know is that Lehman is a microcosm of everything that’s wrong with policing in this country.
People die every month at the hands of the police in Canada — nine in February alone. But nothing ever changes because jagoffs like Lehman don’t want to make their monthly police services board meetings awkward. Couldn’t possibly tolerate side-eye from the chief over canapés; better to just sweep this under the rug.
The victim in this case could easily have died. He’s lucky he wasn’t more seriously injured. Next time, someone may die. But the mayor appears to be more concerned with protecting the officer’s reputation than protecting the lives of the people who elected him.
Lehman thinks voters are just a bunch of goldfish, with the object permanence of a cockatiel. Rather than answer their questions, he’s hoping they’ll forget all about this by the time the next election rolls around.
Leading from the rear
I reached out to every single one of Barrie’s city councillors through their publicly listed email addresses to ask them a simple question: Is it acceptable for the city to withhold the identity of the police officer who violently beat one of your constituents?
Only one, self-described ecosocialist Keenan Aylwin, responded. He wasn’t sure of his position when we first spoke in the immediate aftermath of the assault, but when I reached out again a couple weeks later he told me that the city should release the name of the officer.
“It’s been two weeks since the violent arrest in Downtown Barrie,” said Aylwin at the time. “It’s unacceptable that there’s been no word on the investigation, any potential charges, or disciplinary action against the officers involved. The Barrie police should name the officer involved to clear up the rumours that are going around. The public deserves accountability and transparency.”
The rest of Barrie’s city councillors — Gary Harvey, Clare Riepma, Ann-Marie Kungl, Barry Ward, Robert Thomson, Natalie Harris, Sergio Morales and Mike McCann — ignored my email.
They could have answered that they were fine with the city withholding the officer’s identity; that would at least have been transparent. Instead, they want to duck the issue. They don’t want their constituents to know what they think.
It’s a case study in cowardice.
No accountability, no justice
Here’s why this matters. In this case we can now report the officer’s name, thanks to the dogged reporting of a local outlet. But that took weeks, and the officer’s name might never have been confirmed if a witness had not come forward.
In most cases where a man was filmed beating someone on the street, he would be promptly charged with a crime and his name would become a matter of public record. But in many cases the identity of a violent cop never comes out.
That’s because cops don’t get charged. Period.
A 2018 CBC investigation found that in 461 cases where people were killed in encounters with police between 2000 and 2018 in Canada, only 18 officers were charged. That’s about 3.9 per cent. Of those 18 charges, only two led to a conviction. That’s a conviction rate of 11 per cent. Put another way, 0.43 per cent of police officers involved in the death of a civilian are ultimately convicted.
The general conviction rate in Canada, according to Statistics Canada data from 2019, is roughly 62 per cent for those charged in adult court. The acquittal rate for cases that reach a verdict is 3.63 per cent (the difference reflects charges that are withdrawn and plea deals). The conviction rate for homicide was 49 per cent in 2019, and the acquittal rate for homicide cases that reached a verdict was roughly 2.54 per cent.
Let’s run that again. If you’re charged with murder, you have a one in two chance of being convicted. If a cop is charged with murder they have a one in 10 chance of being convicted.
As you can see, those numbers are effectively inverted. Police officers who are involved in the death of another person are rarely charged. Even when they are, when a prosecutor is so outraged by their conduct that they buck the trend and actually lay charges, they are almost five times less likely to be convicted than others charged with the same crime.
Clearly, we have a parallel justice system for police officers in this country. One law for them, another for the rest of us.
This status quo is upheld and reinforced by politicians like Mayor Jeff and his cowardly councillors. But don’t put all the blame on them. The province of Ontario mandates a police board composed of a majority of unelected appointees be responsible for oversight of the police force.
Even if this gang of cowardly lions suddenly grew a spine, they wouldn’t be able to so much as fire Jason Stamp, not without the support of board members who are accountable to no one.
Great system we’ve got here.
What the mayor and council could do is demand the officer be fired, and put public pressure on the unelected members of the police board to do so. You know, leadership.
I won’t hold my breath.