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Officer’s letter in Don Dunphy killing inflames controversy

By: | April 13, 2015

The contents of a leaked letter allegedly written by the RNC officer who shot and killed Mitchell’s Brook resident Don Dunphy earlier this month reveals a disturbing and troubled attitude about the role of police in our communities, and policing culture more broadly

Hans Rollmann
To Each Their Own examines political issues impacting Newfoundland and Labrador.

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Royal Newfoundland Constabulary. RNC / Facebook.

The death of Don Dunphy is a tragedy that has affected not only his immediate family and community but the province as a whole. It’s a sign of how close-knit and down-to-earth we are that when one of our own is killed, there is a collective outpouring of grief and outrage. And when that death occurs under troubling and mystifying circumstances, it causes a natural sense of fear and demand for answers and action.

The officer at the centre of the controversy over why and how Mr. Dunphy was killed has not been named, and the investigation is ongoing. Yet on Friday that officer sent a mass email to his colleagues, which has since been released to the media and published and shared widely.

At a general level this is not a bad thing: public debate and discussion is to be encouraged, especially at moments like this. And finally we have an astonishingly frank perspective from a police officer, as opposed to the increasingly incomprehensible bureaucratese in which police spokespersons tend to speak these days (a ponderous, over-cautious language in which a person is no longer stabbed, but ‘admitted to hospital with injuries consistent with those of a stabbing,’ and so forth).

The content of the officer’s letter, however, is alarming in many respects. The attitude it conveys is a deeply troubled one. This letter raises more serious questions than it answers about the circumstances leading to Mr. Dunphy’s death, not to mention about how deeply the attitude of impunity and callous self-righteousness which the letter conveys has infected our policing culture.

For that reason, and because these issues speak to the core of our democratic society and the rule of law upon which it is based, it is important that we analyze and reflect on what the officer’s letter says, and what it implies about policing in our society. (You can read the letter in its entirety here.)

Using mental health to shield a violent act

The thing that immediately jumps out is the officer’s claim that Mr. Dunphy needed “help”, but “for Mr. Dunphy, we were simply too late.” That he was “disgruntled” and experiencing “desperation and instability”. Let’s not dance around the bush: the implication here is that he had mental health issues or that his mental health was suffering. This is further underscored by its ostensibly altruistic conclusion: “Please seize any opportunity to help those who need it.”

We know nothing about Mr. Dunphy’s mental health, and should not speculate on it. But the letter is an appeal to public sympathy and an attempt to tap into the ongoing public debate about the need for more resources to support those with mental health conditions. It directs attention away from the actions of the officer who shot Don Dunphy and onto Mr. Dunphy’s mental health. It suggests public energies should be directed toward helping others.

Of course, inadequate mental health funding is a problem that needs to be addressed. But that is not the issue. The focus of public concern in this situation is with the actions of the officer. Regardless of whether or not Mr. Dunphy needed ‘help’ is irrelevant to the question of whether he should have been shot.

Let’s be clear: mental health problems do not lower the threshold for police officers to be permitted to kill people. And it is wildly unacceptable to attempt to co-opt the public mental health discussion when the question is one of police behaviour. Indeed, we hire and train a professional police force precisely because we expect them to be able to handle situations involving mental health without resorting to lethal force.

When Norman Reid and Darryl Power were killed by RCMP and RNC in this province in 2000, the ensuing inquiry determined that mental health resources, and also training for RCMP and RNC in dealing with mental health issues, were both inadequate. In 2010, Barb Sweet wrote in The Telegram (complaining that little had been done on the issue since the inquiry) that “[i]n 2003, mental health experts suggested to The Telegram [Reid] might still be alive if a mental health worker had shown up at his door in August 2000, rather than the police.”

The exact same could be said, more than a decade later, of Don Dunphy.

Did the police learn nothing? Did the government do nothing to change this deadly dynamic in the intervening decade?

One death might be an accident, and a call for action. Three deaths, one of which occurred a full decade after an inquiry that was supposed to change all this, signifies gross negligence with deadly consequence.

“We are the experts in our field, and can’t expect everybody to simply ‘get it’” Despite the fact that police officers are so clearly not experts in matters of mental health, the letter wastes no time drawing a distinction between police and the public. It sets them apart, as a special body, a self-proclaimed elite, suggesting secret knowledge and wisdom not shared with the rest of us. It sends the message that officers’ actions are always correct, and precludes the possibility that police might make a mistake.

It is precisely this misplaced sense of elitism and self-righteousness that has led to an alarming growth in police impunity in North America. Police officers can be wrong. When they are, they must admit their shortcomings and be held accountable. How would we react if a corporate CEO was under investigation for fraud or financial impropriety, and responded with, “We’re the experts; everyone else just doesn’t get it.” Or if a politician was charged with illicit electioneering or corruption, and brushed off accusations with, “We’re the experts; everyone else just doesn’t get it.” The fact that police officers are police officers makes them no different, and if they have started to think themselves above their station—and think of themselves as different and better than everyone else—then they have crossed the very serious line our society draws as to the limits of their legitimate authority.

The letter does more than just display an arrogant self-righteousness when it comes to policing; it also demonstrates a disturbing degree of misunderstanding about the powers of elected politicians. The letter defends officers engaging in extraordinary actions in the name of the premier. It dismisses the notion that the premier is an “ordinary” person: “There is nothing ordinary about that Office.” Sentiments like this are mind-boggling in this day and age, in a democratic society. There is everything ordinary about the premier. That is what a democracy is: we acknowledge that we are all of us ordinary people, we elect ordinary people to administer government, and we continue to treat them as ordinary people for the brief period they are in office. The premier must use the same public toilets as the rest of us; he must stand in line at the grocery just like the rest of us. He must suffer in silence when his cabbage is wilted. He must even pay his taxes. What does the officer envision—that we bow down and look the other way when this “nothing ordinary” person walks by? That we lay out a red carpet? That we pull over our cars so his motorcade can pass by unfettered?

“Society has eroded many of the comforts and standard amenities that should come with being an elected official,” writes the officer. Comforts? What comforts are these? Thrones? Red carpets? It’s a job, not a coronation. If the premier’s security detail has developed a cult of exaltation around the very ordinary person they work for, then they are existing in a collective state of delusion — which is a problematic state to be in for people who carry guns.

Deeply disturbing

On a broader level, the letter conveys considerable disrespect toward civil rights and our democratic society. Take some of the turns of phrase:

“We live in a period where opinion is ubiquitous” — Yes, and we call it free speech. Does the officer lament that we have opinions? Would he prefer that we not have opinions, or merely that we not dare to speak them aloud? Statements like this are probably supposed to sound like a clever and high-handed dismissal of the masses and their opinions, but when coupled with the fact that this officer killed a man who expressed his opinion fearlessly and frequently, the statement is disturbing in the extreme.

“the vocal minority engaged in social media and open line talk shows” — Ah, yes; the hint that somewhere out there, hiding in silence, is a silent majority with the opposite opinion of everyone else who has been speaking out on the issue. This is the classic defense of an unpopular opinion: to hint that the people speaking out against it aren’t actually representative of anything. The fact is, when people speak out—on social media, on open-line talk shows—public officers and institutions have a responsibility to answer and to engage. What does it say when they take a single, out-of-context Tweet so seriously that they drive out to a remote community, armed, and wind up killing a man — yet then brush off the overwhelming outrage on social media and open line as simply an irrelevant “vocal minority”? Mr. Dunphy was a vocal minority, too, and it is that which set in motion the events that led to his death. For a police officer who has been given a gun with which to protect the public—the vocal public, the silent public, the minority public and the majority public alike—to express such derision toward the public is fundamentally unconscionable.

“it is very easy for us to become frustrated at what appears to be prolific ignorance prevailing in our society (something I have had to reconcile myself)” — Here again the officer dismisses public opinion as “ignorance.” The level of disrespect the officer demonstrates toward the society on whose behalf he is supposed to be working is no less than shocking. The implication here is that the police are some form of wise elites who must tolerate the ignorant masses. Such an attitude rings out of either the Victorian age, or a futuristic dystopia. The police who are charged with the responsibility of protecting the public must never think themselves above the public; must never look down on the public as being “ignorant.” Moreover, the officer again admits that he has had to “reconcile” himself to this “ignorance.” In other words, despite having killed a man, he appears to demonstrate little remorse over the action. He does not question whether he did the right thing, and instead defiantly “reconciles” the fact that everyone else (in the public, at least) is wrong, and “ignorant.”

He also mentions the Ottawa shooting. This too risks derailing the conversation in order to convey the impression that violence and danger is all around us, and presumably therefore we should shut up our criticism of those who are supposed to protect us in light of the scary alternative. But the situations are completely unrelated. Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, the man who killed Corporal Nathan Cirillo at the National War Memorial in Ottawa, had been previously arrested for assault and battery, weapons possession, drunk driving, drug possession, fraud, theft, robbery, and possession of a dangerous weapon. He was a self-admitted drug addict, and was arguing with the Canadian government to be issued a passport, purportedly to travel to the Middle East.

Don Dunphy was a 59-year old injured worker in his own home in his own tiny community. Indeed, the officer’s own risk assessment reaffirmed that Dunphy was not a danger (whereas ample evidence in the form of numerous criminal charges and the statements of people who knew him were present in the case of Zehaf-Bibeau). In consideration of these facts, it is highly inappropriate to draw implicit comparisons between Mr. Zehaf-Bibeau and Mr. Dunphy. It is both disrespectful, and inaccurate.

Erroneous misleading statistics associated to the depth of work police carry out is difficult to explain” — Actually, it’s not clear what this statement is even supposed to mean. But it’s part of a broader tendency to infuse the letter with plenty of what would euphemistically be referred to as “techno-babble”: precise scientific terminology designed both to impress the public with the semblance of professionalism (“intelligence-based policing”; “risk analysis”; “assign threat levels”; “implement corrective measures”) as well as suggest that the issue requires a specialized knowledge in order to have any legitimate opinion about it. But that is, of course, nonsense. We don’t need to know how a nuclear bomb is built, in order to have the right to an opinion that we don’t want to have them built and stockpiled in the factory up the road.

“facts seemingly take a back seat to what is titillating” — What exactly does the officer writing this letter think is titillating about the killing of a 59-year old man who is clearly loved and missed by his family and community? If the officer is reading “titillating” into the public response, the officer’s analysis is starkly wrong—and again, highly disrespectful. People do not find the situation titillating—they find it horrifying and shocking. It is not a matter of facts taking a back seat to titillation, but of shock and outrage at the facts that we do know. To dismiss public hurt and outrage as “titillating” is itself shocking and unconscionable.

But the most horrifying part comes at the end: “I cannot regret my actions…I unequivocally wish I could have visited Mr. Dunphy at a point in his life where another level of intervention may have been possible.”

First of all, the lack of regret is needlessly callous. One can stand by the necessity of one’s actions, and yet still regret them. One can even repeat one’s decisions, and still regret them. The history books are full of people who carried out acts which they regretted having to do. And whether or not their actions were what the moment called for, they still had the conscience and integrity to regret those actions. To say that he feels no regret conveys an attitude that is chilling, frightening and cruel.

And the officer’s statement that Mr. Dunphy was not “at a point in his life where another level of intervention may have been possible” is a stunningly thoughtless one. It implies that the visit of the officer to Mr. Dunphy’s home—at this “point in his life,” where another level of intervention was not possible—could have ended no other way than with his death. It suggests that he was a lost cause (“we were simply too late”); that he’d passed the point of no return; that no other intervention than killing him was possible. It was written in the stars. I’m assuming the officer did not actually intend to say all this (even though this is what a semantic reading of the sentence suggests: that no other intervention was possible at this point in Mr. Dunphy’s life, in the officer’s view) but that he just chose remarkably poor wording. Nevertheless, it’s a disturbing closure to suggest that there are points in people’s lives where they are eligible for intervention that does not involve killing them, and then other points in their lives where there is no longer any other alternative form of “intervention” possible. There is always an alternative to killing people. Including people with mental health conditions.

 For a police officer who has been given a gun with which to protect the public—the vocal public, the silent public, the minority public and the majority public alike—to express such derision toward the public is fundamentally unconscionable.

Why this letter was written and “leaked” to media is an important question. It does not calm anything down; it inflames the situation to an unprecedented degree. An officer who is already at the centre of a storm of controversy has essentially thrown further fuel on the flames—to what end? Did he not receive advice from his employer (the RNC), or from lawyers, to not speak out on an issue that is under investigation?

But more importantly, the attitude which the letter conveys is a deeply troubled and disturbed attitude. It suggests an attitude with little remorse, a sense of impunity that claims police know best, cannot make mistakes and should not be questioned. It is disrespectful of the public and of our democratic and civil institutions. It reflects, in short, the very opposite of the sacred attitudes which should be at the core of policing: respect for the public and the institutions of democratic society and the principles of law that our officers serve.

Instead, the letter conveys an arrogant, remorseless attitude of impunity.

If this attitude is prevalent among our police force—as opposed to just revealing the troubled anger of a single individual—then there ought to be a far deeper investigation as to where and how these dangerous attitudes have emerged, and what can be done to prevent the spread of such authoritarian and dangerous attitudes among people who are empowered to carry guns. As this article is going to press, the RNC has just announced an internal investigation into the release of the letter. There needs to be an investigation, but it must not turn into a simplistic witch-hunt for the person who leaked the letter. Rather, it must focus on the broader problem of the attitudes expressed within.

The RNC needs to immediately and publicly dissociate itself from this letter. There are many good and honourable police officers in this province, and the attitudes expressed in the letter does no credit to those good officers either. The province needs leadership at this time: not silence, not refusals to comment, not vague and frightening allusions to times having changed. The public is frightened, and outraged, and need reassurance, openness, honesty and transparency. Our police officers need—and deserve—that as well. What is at question is no longer just the actions of a single individual, but the integrity of our province’s policing culture. To ignore such a twisted and troubled letter, at such a moment of heightened public anxiety and concern, would merely confirm the extent of the dangerous and twisted attitude which this letter conveys.

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