Winnipeg Police recently issued a News Release after they got some push back from Laszlo Piszker. Piszker was issued with a traffic offence notice alleging distracted driving (talking on a cell phone while operating a motor vehicle).
In this particular case the issue made its way into the media and quickly became not only a local but also a national story.
This is the News Release issued by Winnipeg Police:
Tuesday, March 6th, 2012
In response to media inquiries regarding a distracted driving provincial offence notice that was recently issued, the Winnipeg Police Service has the following response:
Distracted driving is a serious safety issue similar to impaired driving or speeding and numerous studies have concluded that it increases the likelihood of collisions.
The Winnipeg Police Service has conducted a review of this incident and has information that is contradictory to the information that has been depicted in the local media.
It is alleged that on March 2nd, 2012 officers were in a police cruiser car that was travelling on Portage Avenue when they observed a male driver of a vehicle with a cell phone held to his ear. Officers were 7 to 8 feet away from the driver when this was observed. Emergency lighting equipment was activated and it took several blocks before the vehicle pulled over. A provincial offence notice was issued to the male driver of the vehicle.
The Winnipeg Police Service will not be discussing this specific incident any further as the proper forum to contest an offence notice is in a Provincial Court. A Judge or Judicial Justice of the Peace will hear the evidence and render a decision.
Winnipeg Police Service will continue to enforce the sections in the Highway Traffic Act related to Distracted Driving to ensure our roadways are safe.
The purpose of this post is not to discuss the merits of the case against Mr. Piszker. That case is before the courts and will and should be decided in the courts, not in the media, and not in the court of public opinion. The purpose is rather to respond to how the police service has reacted to the media.
Police departments are well aware that comments to the media about pending court cases, especially the discussion of the evidence in a particular case, can prejudice the case and the ability of the accused to get a fair trial.
That is why most police departments including the Winnipeg Police Service have policies that restrict and, in many cases prohibit, police from commenting on cases before the courts. The Winnipeg Police Service Media Policy and the media policies of most police departments have a line that says: “Do not prejudice trials” and the first point listed usually references”discussing evidence”. That is why so often you will hear police respond with “we cannot comment further as the matter is before the courts”. That is a reasoned and appropriate response.
So what was it that prompted Winnipeg Police to violate that policy and issue this press release which discusses the evidence?
Several things come into play: police officers and police unions put significant pressure on police executives to respond to the media in situations such as this to defend the actions of the officers involved. Secondly, as a police executive, it is only natural to want to defend the organization when its actions or the actions of its members come under attack. Some police executives wisely take the heat in the short-term and do the right thing which is to advise the media that the matter is before the courts, the evidence will be revealed at trial and the decision will be made by the courts and decline further comment. Not so the Winnipeg Police Service.
The Actions of the Winnipeg Police
Let’s start by examining the content of the News Release. It starts by comparing distracted driving with impaired driving and speeding. The purpose here would be to villianize the accused in this case (who has dared to speak publicly about this issue) and place him in the same category of offender as impaired drivers, a category of offenders who have little public sympathy. Are impaired driving and speeding actually similar to using a cell phone while driving? I think that an argument can be made that distracted driving, although a serious offence in its own right, is still just a violation of the Highway traffic Act, A Provincial Statute, and subject to a fine. That’s a poor comparison to impaired driving which is a criminal offence which can result in license suspension and in extreme cases, jail time. In terms of speeding, drivers exceeding the limit by say 10 or 15 KPH are much less likely to cause or become involved in an accident than a distracted driver. Neither offence is a good comparator.
The News Release then goes on to discuss the evidence in terms of what the issuing officer(s) saw. This is out of line. Evidence should be presented to the court not the media.
The case reminds me of the reaction of Winnipeg Police in the Evan Maud case, a case that involved an allegation that members of the Winnipeg Police Service had taken a young male on a “Starlight Tour”. The case eventually resulted in a charge of public mischief being laid against Maud but again the police released a lot of the evidence in the case to the media in an attempt to sway public opinion in favour of the Police Service.
It is not appropriate for police to pick and choose when they will comply with their policy to not discuss cases and release evidence relating to matters before the courts..
Expedience should not replace adherence to basic policies, values and principles in police decision making in matters such as these.