Jack Knox: Documentation rules make fighting crime a costly business

Jack Knox mugshot genericThe attempted murder of Victoria Police Const. Lane Douglas-Hunt was close to an open-and-shut case.

It wasn’t a whodunit. No issues with witnesses. The man who stabbed her was wrestled down with the bloody knife in his hand.

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That being the case, the contortions required to get a conviction offer a stark example of why crime-fighting costs have gone through the roof — and why the Fraser Institute is out to lunch.

The think tank asked a legitimate question this week: Why are police costs rising while the crime rate is falling?

It then leapt to an obvious, lazy, erroneous conclusion: Police departments are overstaffed.

It ignored the reasons budgets are rising. First, much police work has little to do with crime, government offloading having turned cops into well-armed social workers.

Second, sleuthing serious crime has become a labour-intensive, expensive business. The price tag for even the most straightforward murder probe, one where the killer is caught standing over the body with a smoking gun, is easily half a million bucks.

Why? A series of court decisions raised the bar for the way evidence is collected and disclosed — justifiable measures, but costly ones. There are more high-tech investigation tools, too, and documenting their use takes time. In addition, the burden of proof has shifted so that it’s no longer enough to demonstrate that the bad guy is guilty: “What you have to prove is that no one else could have done it,” says Victoria’s police chief, Frank Elsner. (Note that after the 2010 murder of Fernwood’s Leslie Hankel, VicPD had to provide the defence with transcripts of the interviews of 600 to 800 neighbours. All this takes time and money.)

The Douglas-Hunt case shows how complicated it gets. The 25-year-old VicPD officer was responding to a shoplifting complaint at a downtown 7-Eleven in January 2011 when she was suddenly attacked by Guy Séguin. Saying “the uniform must die,” Séguin, 59, came at her with a knife, wounding her in the neck and left hand, almost severing her thumb. Still, Séguin was subdued.

Police, wanting to see if Séguin’s intent had been to actually kill Douglas-Hunt, planted an undercover cop in his cell. Smart move, as he made several incriminating statements over a number of hours.

But recording those statements needed the authorization of a judge. The application, which ran 50 to 60 pages, was drawn up by an officer (on overtime) with expertise in that area. With the clock ticking, the package was then brought to the home of a judge for scrutiny and signing.

Not wanting language barriers to be an issue at trial — Séguin speaks French — police brought in a francophone Mountie (on overtime) for the cell plant. RCMP policy requires that another Mountie be on hand to watch over the undercover officer, so VicPD paid for that, too.

Transcribing the recorded conversation — the Mountie and Séguin spent close to 15 hours together — required a francophone with the necessary background. The closest VicPD could find was an RCMP civilian employee in Toronto. As a rule, it takes three hours to transcribe an hour of recorded conversation, and she had to provide copies in both French and English. The undercover cop then had to review those copies while listening to the recordings before sending any corrections back to Toronto.

VicPD lead investigator Scott McGregor’s 2 1/2 hour interview with Séguin had to be transcribed, too. So did the audio-visual recordings of half a dozen witnesses. Instead of just giving prosecutors what investigators think are the highlights, as used to be the case, police now give the Crown transcripts of the entire process.

Meanwhile, investigators, wanting to track Séguin’s movements in the hours leading up to the crime, sought video footage from stores in the corridor between the Salvation Army and the 7-Eleven. That had to be documented.

Police seized the 7-Eleven surveillance system (and bought the store a new one). It was shipped to the Vancouver Police’s forensic video unit, which had the expertise to put the evidence in a format presentable to the court. The Vancouver officer who did that work (on overtime) then had to be brought to Victoria three times — once for an interview with Crown counsel, again for Séguin’s preliminary hearing and again as a witness at trial. The original and converted videos both became part of the evidence package, along with the Vancouver expert’s account of how the conversion was done.

Both the shoplifter who prompted the original police call and Séguin were francophones living at the Salvation Army, enough of a coincidence that detectives wanted to see if the two had conspired to draw an officer into an ambush. As it turned out, after tracking down the shoplifter in Surrey, where he was arrested on an uttering-a-threat charge (which required another report to Crown counsel), police found no connection between the initial shoplifting complaint and the stabbing.

An officer who acts as file co-ordinator had to assemble all the evidence in a format that made sense to both Crown and defence lawyers — a relatively slim four binders worth in this case. (Since then, they have switched to electronic disclosure, a laborious process.) Three use-of-force experts testified. So did a medical expert.

In the end, 16 months after the attack, Séguin got 10 years. Douglas-Hunt got a bravery award from the governor general for positioning herself to protect onlookers even after being attacked. Victoria taxpayers got a big bill for the investigation.

The point is that it’s all more complex than the intellectually porous arguments presented by the too-many-cops crowd. (It’s even more complicated in British Columbia. In provinces where police lay charges themselves, much evidence is documented only if a case actually proceeds to trial; in B.C., where charges are at the discretion of the Crown, prosecutors want full disclosure of all evidence before they drag an accused in front of a judge. That’s a lot of extra grunt work for the cops.)

It’s true, though, that policing costs are rising. The question is: Is it sustainable?

“I don’t think it is, in the long run,” says Elsner.

Just don’t look for simplistic solutions.

jknox@timescolonist.com

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