Opinion| Sault Police Ought to Release Names of Accused in Domestic Disputes

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In several columns over the years I have railed against the policy of our police service of not naming the accused in certain instances, most notably in anything resembling a domestic dispute.

I simply felt that in most cases they went too far, in one instance a few years back even refusing to release the name of a 42-year-old Quebec man wanted for attempted murder, criminal harassment, assault with a weapon and threatening they arrested at the Greyhound bus terminal because the charges were “domestic related.”

And city police were not alone in their reluctance to release names, the OPP not being all that forthcoming in 2014 in regard to one of their own, a 43-year-old officer who was charged with two counts of assault causing bodily harm, assault with a weapon, uttering threats and pointing a firearm as a result of incidents that occurred the previous year.

The officer apparently was involved in an intimate relationship with the victim but OPP declined to elaborate on the relationship or the victim’s sex.

I said in a column at the time that I believed the officer’s name, not the relationship, was the most important factor and that it was ridiculous to not name an officer charged with assault causing bodily harm and assault with a weapon.

What was the public to think of that?

Which brings me to a case involving our city police service that hit the news this week.

The Sault Star reported that an unnamed 15-year veteran of the Sault Ste. Marie Police Service, who is on leave from active duty, is facing several charges as a result of a complaint officers received last week.

The story said a male had reported an assault and threatening incident last week and as a result charges of assault, threatening and mischief were laid against the police constable. Additional charges were laid in connection with earlier incidents that came to light during the initial investigation.

“Those charges include mischief to an adult female victim and assault and threatening charges involving the same adult male victim who originally filed the complaint,” said Police Chief Robert Keetch.

The chief said the decision not to name the officer was based on his authority to protect the significant well-being of the individuals involved and the employee and balance that with the expectations of the public and community.

As you can well imagine from my previous writings, the not naming of the officer caused me concern so I emailed the chief, asking for some clarification of his statement.

“Previously the main reason a person charged was not named was in regard to a domestic dispute,” I wrote. “You seem to be going further afield. I am afraid from the public’s point of view it appears that you are simply protecting an officer.

“As neither the public nor I can see the justification for not naming this officer, as it does not appear to be a domestic dispute, I am asking for more information as to the rationale behind your decision to not name him. The balance you mention just doesn’t seem to come through.”

Later we spoke by phone.

The chief agreed he was protecting his officer.

I have learned the officer is on long-term disability as a result of a severe head injury sustained in a fall that occurred when he was off duty. He is not expected to ever return to work.

That, of course, wasn’t all I learned but it is all I feel I can report.

Since the case does not involve a serving officer, it turns out I am with the chief on this.

There is a time for empathy and I think this is one of those times.

And as the chief pointed out, if anyone in the public really wants the officer’s name, it is a public record available at the courthouse.

However, although I am going along with not releasing the name of the accused in this case, don’t get the idea that I am easing off on my complaint about the policy to not release names in domestic disputes. I am not. I still think it is nuts that you can be named for smacking your neighbour but not for smacking your wife, girlfriend or ex-girlfriend or, conversely, your husband, boyfriend or ex-boyfriend.

You may recall a story from a couple of years back where city police responded to what they termed a “a domestic dispute” near the city bus terminal on Queen Street East in which an accused female, age 23, allegedly kicked and punched her ex-boyfriend.

Withholding the name of an abuser in what is termed a “domestic” dispute is bad enough when people are living together, surely withholding it borders on crazy when a relationship no longer exists, I said at the time.

However, considering the non-release of names in some cases in the past, I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised at this one.

In 2011 a man was charged with assault causing bodily harm as a result of an alleged assault on his girlfriend and his girlfriend in turn was charged with arson endangering life for allegedly setting fire to the house with him and two other people in it.

Classifying it as a domestic dispute, police declined to release the names of those charged, leading me to wonder if we would have even gotten the names if the people in the house had burned to death.

Then there was the case in 2009 where a man fired a shotgun into the leg of a man his ex-girlfriend was now seeing and shortly after took his own life.

Police declined to release the names, citing sections of the Municipal Freedom of Information and Privacy Act they believed precluded them from releasing information in what they regard as domestic disputes.

As I said at that time, I have trouble accepting that anyone could, let alone would, consider the gunning down of a new boyfriend by the ex, an event which left one person dead and the other in danger of losing a leg, a domestic dispute.

I have long advocated that if all police are seeking is to protect the name of a victim, all they have to do is leave out anything in their news release that would indicate any relationship between accused and victim.

So far, of course, that suggestion has fallen on deaf ears.

Doug Millroy can be reached at dmillroy@gmail.com.

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