Blind man claims cop abuse

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      A blind man who claimed that he was assaulted by two SkyTrain police officers is asking what has happened to the complaint he filed.

      William Conway told the Georgia Straight that he last received an official update about his case on June 24. “The status is, I don't know,”  said the Sechelt resident who regularly travels to Vancouver with his guide dog to attend meetings of the BC Coalition of People with Disabilities, where he sits as a board member.

      Conway, who has been blind since he was eight, said nothing could have prepared him for the alleged February 22 assault following a night- time exchange of words with two SkyTrain constables at Joyce Station who questioned whether his German shepherd was a certified guide dog.

      “They tried to break my wrist. They tried to choke me out of consciousness,”  said Conway, who recalled that he passed out for a few seconds and regained awareness after his dog began licking his face. He later found out that he suffered a gash on the leg.

      The Conway case is one of eight complaints filed so far against the SkyTrain police, officially known as the Greater Vancouver Transportation Authority Police Service, since the force became Canada's first armed transit police last December.

      Deputy police complaints commissioner Bruce Brown advised the Straight that all eight complaints are open and under investigation. Five of these complaints have been for abuse of authority and one each for discreditable conduct, deceit, and neglect of duty; three contained allegations of excessive force.

      The Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner is an independent agency tasked with ensuring that the investigation of complaints being undertaken by the internal-affairs or professional-standards unit of the police department involved is done in a fair and impartial manner.

      The New Westminster police department investigates complaints against SkyTrain police officers. Sgt. Lori Jackson of the New Westminster police told the Straight that the investigation of Conway's complaint was completed in August and a final report is being prepared.

      Margaret Birrell, executive director of the BC Coalition of People With Disabilities, has known Conway for several years and describes him as a “good advocate for the visually impaired” . Birrell said she was at the coalition's office when Conway came in the day after he was allegedly assaulted by the two SkyTrain police officers. “He was shaking, anxious, and agitated,”  she said.

      “I felt that this was something we have to look into,”  Birrell said. Referring to Conway's alleged attackers, she said: “It's an outrageous behaviour. These are supposedly professional staff. When you're supposed to be protecting the public and on public payroll, it is inappropriate.” 

      Ken Hardie, spokesperson for the Greater Vancouver Transportation Authority””commonly known as TransLink””said he couldn't speak about Conway's complaint but pointed out that the alleged February 22 incident wasn't the first encounter between the Sechelt man and the SkyTrain police.

      “He has not responded favourably in the past for requests for identification of his dog,”  Hardie said in a phone interview.

      As Conway waits for word about his complaint, doubts linger about the wisdom of arming SkyTrain cops.

      “The danger associated with carrying firearms has to do with confined quarters in a fast-moving transit,”  explained Jason Gratl, president of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association. “A gun is drawn, the crowd panics, somebody pushes, and a shot is fired,” 

      Gratl, a lawyer, told the Straight that although there have been no reports of a firearm discharge by SkyTrain police, the “danger has not significantly diminished” .

      “Six months hasn't changed our mind about this issue,”  Gratl said.

      Insp. Dan Dureau, who handles media affairs for GVTAPS, dismissed as “unfounded”  concerns about transit police bearing guns, although when asked by the Straight if there had been cases when the SkyTrain police drew their guns, he said, “Of course.” 

      Hardie pointed out that GVTAPS officers have an average of 18 years of police experience as former members of municipal police forces or the RCMP and are “fully trained in the context of operating at a transit system” . He also said that public reception of the arming of transit police has been very positive because it is seen as a deterrent to crimes committed inside and in the vicinity of TransLink facilities.

      But Burnaby Coun. Nick Volkow says that people are split 50-50 on the issue and he counts himself firmly on the side of those who oppose having armed police on the transit system. “The risks far outweigh the benefits,”  Volkow told the Straight. “I don't want to wait and wake up to a shooting accident before I speak about this.” 

      Hardie argued that SkyTrain cops need to have the same tools as other police officers because of their expanded authority to enforce provincial and federal laws and arrest people wanted on outstanding warrants. Compared to their former status as special constables, GVTAPS officers can now operate in the community rather than being restricted to TransLink property, he said.

      “They are more effective because they have more authority,”  he said. Citing a July 6 report submitted to the TransLink board by GVTAPS chief officer, Bob Kind, Hardie noted that for a six-month period from January to June this year, SkyTrain police “received calls for service”  on 25,106 offences ranging from crimes against persons to traffic violations in and outside TransLink facilities.

      The same report stated that transit police were involved in 181 narcotics-related arrests and seizures for the same period. The force also served 163 warrants of arrest and conducted 421 joint operations with other police agencies in “such areas as drugs, stolen property, youth crime and safety, and graffiti,”  said the report.

      Currently, there are 77 sworn police officers of the GVTAPS and “active recruitment is underway to fill police officer vacancies and new 2006 positions,”  the report said, adding that the 2006 authorized strength for the police force is 100 officers.

      “Approximately $2.7 million has been incurred to train staff to meet police officer standards, purchase firearms, implement necessary communications infrastructure and purchase new uniforms and equipment,”  according to TransLink's 2005 annual report presented to the GVTA board by CEO Pat Jacobsen.

      Zailda Chan, an organizer of the activist group Bus Riders Union, told the Straight that the arming of the SkyTrain police is another case of misplaced priorities.

      “We need more buses, not guns,”  Chan said in a phone interview.

      David Eby of the Pivot Legal Society, an advocacy group for the poor, said there was very little public input taken before arming transit constables. “I don't know if there is any benefit to it,”  he told the Straight.