A year ago today, June 16, 2016, a 41-year-old man died in the holding cells of Halifax Regional Police after being arrested, but not charged, for public intoxication.
Strictly speaking, we do not know who he was. Neither HRP nor the Serious Incident Response Team, which is investigating, will say, and they are the only official sources.
This is worthy of a little soak time. A man was taken off the street by the Halifax police and died in their custody, but his name is a secret. Oh, and there are indications the death involved a criminal act. You’d think that by now the media and/or the Halifax Police Commission would have started making a fuss about this.
The victim’s mother, however, can’t. I’m advised by a third party that she’s been told that loose lips could sink the investigation into her son’s death. I haven’t contacted her because upsetting grieving mothers is not necessary here. Any citizen can learn the name of the victim by checking obituaries for the period. His initials are CR.
But that’s not the point. The problem is that our law enforcement officials don’t believe they have an obligation to make their actions public, even when someone has died.
So, yes, this is a slippery slope argument that ends with a police state such as Argentina during its “Dirty War” and countless others now and in history (including Canada’s own suspensions of civil rights).
The reason that doesn’t happen here and now is that police states are contrary to our values and we back up those values with scrutiny. But the scrutiny has to be habitual, reflexive and even obsessive to be effective. You can say it’s a job for media, but when media expose something, citizens have to care.
I say this even though I believe we have a good police force in Halifax — its undemocratic “street check” policy notwithstanding. But keeping it that way requires more than regular budget increases. We need to raise hell when our appointed scrutineers suppress the name of someone who died in the hands of the police.
A scary, closer-to-home example of how things can go wrong is the Chicago Police Department’s secret detention centre, which was exposed not by American media, but Britain’s The Guardian. Fake news? Google “Homan Square Chicago” and see for yourself.
And why is this investigation taking so long? SiRT Director Ron MacDonald told me in 2016 he expected it to wrap up early this year.
All MacDonald will say now is the case “is long and complex.” But he also said the Public Prosecution Service is involved. For the record, the PPS says the case long and complex.
But wait! The PPS prosecutes criminal charges, so THAT’s interesting.
Next: Are SiRT and the public prosecution service getting along?