Winnipeg Police Response to the Laszlo Piszker Case

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.

For further information contact either: 
Constable Natalie Aitken, Public Information Officer
Constable Jason Michalyshen, Public Information Officer

Office: (204)986-3061
Fax: (204) 986-3267
Email: WPS-PIO@Winnipeg.ca 
Web: 
www.winnipeg.ca/Police

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.

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The 2011 Holiday Check Stop Program

Are Police providing an accurate interpretation?  
When I read the headline “Peggers choosing safety and sobriety, police say“,  I thought to myself, that is good news.  The article went on to say, “Winnipeggers appear to be getting the message about drinking and driving, the Winnipeg Police Service said Monday, after releasing the numbers from its 2011 festive-season Check Stop campaign.”
Lets have a look at those numbers and see if there is a reason to rejoice.
Table 1  compares the 2010 Check Stop numbers to those of 2011:
Table 1

2010

2011

Vehicles stopped

2470

1900

Drivers Charged

98

57

Percentage of Drivers Charged

4%

3%

This is good, yes?   Well it is and it isn’t.   Of all the drivers stopped in 2010, 4% were charged.  That number went down by 1 % to 3% in 2011.    The real issue is, why is it that with substantial increases in resources in 2011, only 1,900 drivers were stopped in 2011?  I suggest it’s a matter of priorities.  Stopping 2,470 drivers as was done in 2010 would have required more resources – resources the Winnipeg Police Service was not prepared to dedicate to this cause.

With a charge rate of 3% of all drivers stopped, had the police stopped 2470 drivers in 2011 as they did in 2010 the number of drivers charged  would have been in the range of 74.  That’s 17 more impaired drivers off the road during a very short span of time.

To get a more complete picture of impaired driving trend one needs to examine the issue over a period of years, not just a period of weeks.

Table 2 depicts the data between 2000 and 2010 for impaired driving and refusal to provide a breath sample for Winnipeg.  The table highlights the following:

1.  The number of drivers who refuse to provide a sample of their breath has decreased dramatically since 2000;

2.  There was a significant decrease in the number of impaired drivers arrested from 2000 to 2006;

3.  The arrest numbers were essentially static in 2007 and 2008;

4.  In both 2009 and 2010 impaired driving arrest numbers rose 11%.

Table 2

Refusals

Impaired

Total

Change +/-  *

2000

178

1080

1258

2001

59

957

1016

-21%

2002

40

761

801

-21%

2003

37

729

766

-4%

2004

42

679

721

-6%

2005

11

565

576

-20%

2006

9

470

479

-17%

2007

9

476

485

+1%

2008

14

462

476

-2%

2009

1

526

527

+11%

2010**

8

577

585

+11%

Data obtained from 2000-2010 Winnipeg Police Annual Reports
* percentages are rounded to the nearest whole number
** The 2010 numbers shown are based on the 2010 Annual Report which has been withdrawn and will be reissued.
Before being able to say with any certainty that Winnipeggers are getting the message about drinking and driving, we need first to see a reversal of the upward trend in 2009 and 2010.  The limited data from the most recent Check Stop program does not warrant such a conclusion.
When the Winnipeg Police Service releases its 2011 Annual Report (hopefully before December 28th,  2012) we will have a better idea as to whether  Winnipeggers are indeed getting the message.  If the upward trend experienced in 2009 and 2010 continues, then obviously the claim by the Winnipeg Police Service is not supported by the evidence.

Alcolaser

The Alcolaser is a laser device developed in Russia which is able to detect alcohol in vehicles as they pass by the device.

The device which has been dubbed “BOUTON” (flower bud) was displayed at the International Exhibition of Police and Military equipment in Moscow in October.

The manufacturer claims that the device is capable of detecting  low levels of alcohol (ethanol) in vehicles passing by the device  at  speeds of  up to 150  km per hour,  works in all weather conditions and requires no complex maintenance.

The device is capable of scanning the cab of a vehicle in o.1 seconds from a distance of 25 meters.  Coupled with a plate reader it can capture the license plate of the vehicle in question which can then be transmitted by  Wi-Fi signal to police at another location.  Police can then stop the vehicle and perform further tests to determine if the driver is in fact impaired.

Impaired driving is a big problem in Russia.  In 2010 Russia experienced 11,000 accidents that involved impaired drivers.

The manufacturer and Russian police will be conducting  further tests on the device next year and it is anticipated that it will be deployed in Russia in 2012 or 2013.

The science behind the approach is not new.  At least one American company started working on a similar device in 1995 but as of now I am not aware of any similar product available on the North American Market.

At this time there is no indication as to the cost of the device.