Vancouver police Chief Jim Chu's legacy is on the line in wake of Paul Boyd shooting
Ever since Jim Chu took over the top job at the VPD, the shooting of Paul Boyd has threatened to unravel his efforts to be seen as this city's most progressive and enlightened police chief.
In recent years, Chu has mollified many of the VPD's traditional critics by employing a lighter hand than his predecessors on political demonstrators.
While police reactions to student protests in Montreal and G8 protests in Toronto inflamed those cities, Vancouver's 2010 Vancouver Olympics went off reasonably well. Officers didn't crack any heads with billy clubs even after a couple of windows were smashed on West Georgia Street.
Chu has also increased the recruitment of officers from minority communities.
In addition, the technocratic chief took steps to quell opposition to the department in the Downtown Eastside by issuing a formal apology to residents shortly after taking over. And his officers' restrained use of force may be part of the reason nobody died during the Stanley Cup riot.
More recently, the police didn't inflict any violence against the Occupy protesters. And the VPD won praise for issuing a detailed report and apology concerning its bungled investigation into the missing-women cases.
But that's ancient history in light of the newest crisis facing Chu, who is a central player in the exoneration of Const. Lee Chipperfield.
On August 13, 2007, Chipperfield shot Boyd eight times near the corner of Granville and West 15th Avenue, including a final and fatal bullet to the head when the talented animator was unarmed. Boyd was suffering mental illness at the time.
The following morning was Chu's first day on the job as chief. He issued a statement issuing sympathy to Boyd's family, described the particulars of the incident, added that two officers on the scene were injured, and asked witnesses to come forward.
So far, so good. A week later, the VPD complied with the Boyd family's request to release a statement and a photograph. The VPD also stated that investigators had "unconfirmed reports that someone may have digital still or video footage of the shooting", and witnesses were once again asked to come forward.
The VPD's major crime section then conducted an investigation, obtaining an opinion from Calgary Police Service use-of-force expert Staff Sgt. Chris Butler.
The Calgary cop cleared Chipperfield. The VPD also obtained an opinion from a Minnesota State University psychologist, Bill Lewinski, who concluded that Chipperfield's judgements were "logically consistent with his perception of the reality of this incident, consistent with his previous training and experience and consistent with the research and knowledge of how humans perform under stress".
Then Chu asked the Mounties to review the VPD's investigation before it was forwarded to Crown counsel, which declined to lay charges. Two-and-a-half years after the shooting, Chu concluded that there was insufficient evidence of any disciplinary default on the part of Chipperfield.
The decision was upheld earlier this year by Stan Lowe, a former prosecutor who is now B.C.'s police-complaint commissioner.
That may have been the end of it had it not been for a video surfacing this week, which showed Boyd crawling along the ground before he was shot. A full 22 seconds elapsed on the video between the second-to-last and the final shot.
Lowe acknowledged in his report that there was a "divergence in views amongst several of the witnesses as to whether Constable Chipperfield was justified in deploying a gunshot intended to be lethal, based on the level of threat that Mr. Boyd portrayed at the time".
Lowe didn't go into detail about the "divergence in views" or what the police officers present might have said.
According to Lowe's report, the psychologist in Minnesota concluded that Chipperfield "was most likely 'shooting to save his life rather than being focused on shooting to stop Mr. Boyd.' "
In light of what is seen on the video, it's hard to see how Chipperfield could have been fearing for his life with numerous officers on the scene, his revolver drawn, and the appearance of Boyd crawling on the street before he disappears behind a vehicle.
Justice Minister Shirley Bond and Lowe have farmed out a new review to the Alberta Serious Incident Response Team.
The executive director of the Alberta Serious Incident Response Team, Clif Purvis, is a career prosecutor, like Lowe. It's unlikely that this review will offer the public any deep insights into the divergent views between the witnesses.
The only time police officers ever seem to come under real scrutiny is at a public inquiry led by a retired judge. This is what finally unearthed the truth in the death of Robert Dziekanski at the Vancouver International Airport. And it's what uncovered the real story in the 1998 death of an aboriginal man named Frank Paul, who was left in an alley on a cold December night by Vancouver police officers.
Eventually, pressure from the citizenry, the media, and the NDP Opposition in Victoria may reach the point where there will be a public inquiry into Boyd's death. This could come either under the Police Act or because it was ordered by the provincial government.
And if that occurs, Chu will find himself answering some tough questions that could define his legacy as chief.
Why did he believe there was no discipline default when Chipperfield waited a full 22 seconds before firing a bullet into Boyd's head? How much, if any, of Chu's decision-making was influenced by the department's and the city's wish to avoid any legal liability that might come from a finding of wrongdoing? Did Chu discuss the consequences with anyone about the potential financial fallout from determining that Chipperfield committed a disciplinary default?
In the movie All the President's Men, there's a telling comment by a character named Deep Throat in a dark underground parking lot. He advises reporter Bob Woodward: "Follow the money...Just follow the money."
We haven't heard the end of the story of Paul Boyd's death. If Chu is concerned about how he's viewed in the history books, he better hope that it is never turned into a movie.
Just imagine some Hollywood hunk—this generation's version of Robert Redford—playing the role of B.C. Civil Liberties Association executive director David Eby, who has been seeking accountability on this case for years. Things don't look very good for the department based on what the public has seen in the video, and it could get a whole lot worse for Chu in the future.
Follow Charlie Smith on Twitter at twitter.com/csmithstraight.