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The Globe and Mail

Peel's 'hard-line' police abuse the law: critics

Dave McPhail, a truck mechanic, was illegally strip searched by Peel Police.

J/P. Moczulski for The Globe and Mail/j/p. moczulski The Globe and Mail

For the second time in less than a month, a judge has set free someone charged by Peel Regional Police, and ruled that officers lied and intimidated suspects.

The double blow from the judiciary has done little to shake the police service that patrols the fast-growing cities of Brampton and Mississauga to the west of Toronto: It has no plans to investigate or discipline the rogue officers.

Defence lawyers who regularly try cases in the area call it the latest example of a troubling and cozy relationship between the police service and the local prosecutor's office, which has yet to wipe away the decades-old stain of a high-profile wrongful conviction.

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With 1,855 officers, the Peel force ranks behind only those of Toronto, Montreal and Calgary. It watches over a sprawling melting pot of new immigrants.

"Peel is a petri dish of massive growth and bad planning," said defence counsel Robert Rotenberg. "They are playing catch up, going from being a small town to being a big city."

In the latest ruling, a judge found that Peel Regional police officers stripped a suspect naked to show him who was boss, and provided false testimony to conceal their misconduct.

Earlier this month, a judge found that Peel officers had misled the courts into believing that a suspected pimp, Courtney Salmon, was caught with fake documentation to identify a 17-year-old stripper as over 18.

Peel has a reputation for such hard-line law enforcement. But many officers who are criticized by judges avoid criminal charges or internal discipline because the force tends not to review their conduct unless the local Crown office requests it, which it does not always do.

"While there is no formal process, where there are issues relating to a witness officer's testimony, the Crown may bring it to the attention of police," said Brendan Crawley, a spokesman for the Ministry of the Attorney-General. "It is done on a case by case basis, and we do not track this."

Attempts to contact almost a dozen senior police and police services board officials in recent days were not successful.

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Peel is not the only force that lacks such a mechanism. The Edmonton Police Service, for example, relies largely on prosecutors to notify it of judicial criticism of its officers. Unlike Peel, however, the Edmonton force is not content with the status quo.

"We have been alerted to some of these after the fact, so we need to go back to the Crown and talk about that process," said Mark Neufeld, inspector in charge of professional standards for the EPS.

Defence lawyers roll their eyes at the mention of Peel and its attitude toward law enforcement.

"I hate doing cases out in Peel," said defence lawyer Susan Von Achten. "By and large, I wouldn't trust the majority of Peel cops as far as I could throw them. I tell my clients to move away from Peel. Once they have been arrested, they are harassed and harassed and harassed."

Defence counsel Reid Rusonik said Peel police officers are rarely held accountable.

"For years, judges have been finding on a regular basis that police witnesses have lied," Mr. Rusonik said. "This false testimony has been given in one building and on the watch of one Crown office. None of these dozens and dozens of officers have been charged."

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Terrence Edgar, director of Mississauga Community Legal Services, calls the region a conglomeration of fiefdoms where bureaucrats work through private channels and back rooms. Like the Toronto Maple Leafs hockey team, he said, "they have different coaches and players year after year, but somehow they maintain the same culture."

In the strip search case, David McPhail, 25, said he felt helpless as a routine, impaired-driving charge escalated into a frightening confrontation. "I'm not a big guy - and I was in a closed room with two officers and no surveillance camera," he said. "You are obligated to comply. To this day, I outright fear the police."

He said that youth are used to being questioned or searched. "It's like an annual occurrence for me," he said. "You get pulled over and lose an hour out of your life because they decide they want to search you or your car. In Peel region, that's just how they operate."

The local Crown's office is equally well known for playing hardball - an attitude engendered in the 1970s by its revered leader, Leo McGuigan, who taught prosecutors to eschew plea bargaining, giving birth to the nickname No Deal Peel.

Mr. McGuigan gained the conviction of Guy Paul Morin in the 1984 rape and murder of a nine-year-old girl after a gruelling, nine-month trial. Mr. Morin was later exonerated, and a public inquiry found that prosecutors were devoid of objectivity, and displayed "staggering" tunnel vision.

The Crown office's close relationship with the Peel police creates a potential problem when it comes to officers who have been disparaged by a judge - the McPhail incident being a case in point.

"We aren't investigating those officers because, quite frankly, we haven't had any complaint from the Crown's office of a criminal nature," said Peel Regional police Sergeant Zahir Shah.

In regard to the Salmon case, Sgt. Shah said that no consideration will be given to an internal review of the officers until a possible Crown appeal is completed.

Sgt. Shah said his force does not go looking for cases where an officer's credibility has been called into question. "We don't have officers monitoring and going into each and every court each and every day," he said.

This lax attitude causes officers to believe they can get away with abusing the law, said Ian Collins, Mr. McPhail's lawyer.

"The case merits a full investigation from authorities independent of the Peel Regional Police," said Mr. Collins, of Burrows Firm Traffic Lawyers Professional Corporation. "These police lost the conviction they sought, but there have been no other consequences. Without accountability for police misconduct, there is impunity."

In an apparent plan to change Peel culture, the Brampton judiciary was stocked in recent years with street-savvy judges who do not shrink from throwing out evidence and criticizing authorities.

But Mr. Rusonik said their efforts are often futile. "It's a shame," he said. "Two or three such prosecutions of lying police officers could scare the rest out of doing it with such abandon. But not prosecuting licenses it."

In other recent cases involving Peel police, former officer Sheldon Cook was sentenced to almost six years in prison in 2010 for stealing 15 packages of what he believed to be cocaine; and 24 Peel officers who attended a raucous, after-hours drinking party in 2007 were found to have chased and hauled down two young men who had videotaped their antics.

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Justice reporter

Born in Montreal, Aug. 3, 1954. BA (Journalism) Ryerson, 1979. Previously covered environment beat, Queen's Park. Toronto courts bureau from 1981-85. Justice beat from 1985 - present. More

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