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The policeman and us


On April 4, the media in the United States carried the story of a white policeman shooting to death an unarmed black man in Charleston, South Carolina.

Canadians might be forgiven for thinking that this was not world-shaking news. Rather, it seemed like just another sad chapter in the same sorry saga of lethal racism inflicted by white law enforcement on their black fellow citizens, all too commonplace in the gun culture of our neighbours to the south.  

When the very next day, Easter Sunday, another shooting took place, this time in Mitchells Brook, St Mary’s Bay, Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada, this Canadian did not find it commonplace at all. Instead, like so many in this province, I was shocked.

In South Carolina, thanks to a bystander’s cell phone camera, the eight shots fired at the back of a fleeing man are now common knowledge worldwide. So is the shooter’s name, Officer Michael Thomas Slager, and his face, staring fixedly from the arrest photo where he is dressed in striped inmate garb. In South Carolina the policeman who pulled the trigger has lost his job and is charged with murder. If he is found guilty he faces either life imprisonment or the death penalty.  

In St. Mary’s Bay, with the exception of loud noises that sounded like gunfire to some neighbours, what really took place inside Don Dunphy’s house is known by only one person, the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary officer who pulled the trigger, one or more times.

Immediately following the shooting the RCMP released information attributed to the RNC officer: An armed plain clothes RNC officer in an unmarked police car arrived alone and unannounced at Don Dunphy’s house in Mitchells Brook. He was invited inside. Approximately 15 minutes later shots were fired. Dunphy had a .22 calibre rifle said to be loaded. Was it fired? The Mounties would neither confirm nor deny that. What they did confirm was that Don Dunphy was dead.

That was all until an email said to have been sent by the RNC officer to some 400 of his colleagues was “leaked” to the CBC. We don’t know that officer’s name because both CBC and the Constabulary are withholding it “to protect him”.

Constabulary Chief Bill Sikes has launched an investigation to pinpoint who leaked the email.  

I can understand why the Constabulary would not want the anonymous policeman’s email to become public. Set aside the near certainty that any email sent to 400 addresses will not long remain private, what no doubt triggered the leak was what the email said.  

It reveals the anonymous policeman’s disturbing us and them attitude, separating the public from the all-knowing men and women in uniform, or in his case, plain clothes.

 The email’s author complains, “We live in a period where opinion is ubiquitous, while facts seemingly take a back seat to what is titillating.” He continues, “We are the experts in our field and can’t expect everybody to simply ‘get it’ “.  It goes on like this. The email is about 900 words long, its rambling revelations revealing numerous insights into the anonymous policeman whose goal seems to be circling the wagons with the public on the outside.

There are no doubt many, many members of the RNC who don’t share that view of the world and a police officer’s place in it.  One of them probably leaked the email. The important thing now is not to identify that public-spirited person, but to understand what went so wrong, ending in the tragic death of one of our citizens.

It apparently began with some twitter messages which depending on your view of social media, were either serious enough threats against the premier for the police to get involved, or just more venting by a frustrated person.

You may recall a few years ago when a former premier, in a fit of anger declared publicly that so and so “should be shot”.  

I don’t recall hearing of any police officers turning up at the premier’s door. My guess is that the RNC never even discussed the matter.  

Things may be much more dangerous today though, and Don Dunphy was never premier, so maybe it was a good idea for the police to visit him. But maybe that police force should have been the RCMP in whose jurisdiction Don Dunphy lived and with whose officers he had a cordial relationship according to a social worker who was also Dunphy’s friend. Instead the RNC got involved.

 I take the premier at his word that he never knew of any Twitter messages threatening him. But someone decided that there was present danger and it had to be addressed. Not by sending at least two armed uniformed officers in a well-marked patrol car, and talking to Dunphy on the doorstep of his house.

Instead the anonymous officer turned up in an unmarked car, unannounced, alone and in plain clothes on Easter Sunday. There he met an eccentric, sidelined, frustrated and beloved member of a small, tightly knit community. And then the two of them went inside.

Was this an ill-conceived attempt by a well-intentioned policeman, a servant of the public to gently and discreetly approach a troubled person? Or did the ego of this elite policeman specially chosen to safeguard our premier, a former policeman himself, lose track of who he was supposed to be protecting, one man or the citizens of Newfoundland and Labrador.

We may never know. Unlike the shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, there was no cell phone camera inside Don Dunphy’s closed front door to bear witness to the tragedy unfolding there. The camera in South Carolina made the task of the authorities simpler.

Our job, we citizens of St. Mary’s Bay, Newfoundland and Labrador, and Canada is more difficult. We need to watch carefully how our decision-makers proceed while navigating a just outcome to this very sad episode in order that others like it do not follow.

 

Peter Pickersgill is an artist and writer in Salvage, Bonavista Bay.

His column will return in two weeks. He can be reached by email

at pickersgill@mac.com.

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