Monday 8 November 2010

Police investigating Police: Does it work? (Part 3)

Sometimes having the right of way is not always the safest way. Mei Han Lee, 67, had the right of way while crossing the street when the green light was facing her while she was on the way home from a morning stroll. She was struck by a Toronto police cruiser and killed. The impact of the suddenly accelerating police car launched Lee off the bumper and threw her about 30 metres (98.4 feet) down the street. The impact severed her brain stem, killing her instantly. Lee was struck while on the way home to care for her autistic grandson so her daughter-in-law could spend the day looking for a job.

The marked cruiser had been idling in the left-turn lane, facing east, when Toronto police officer Juan Quijada-Mancia suddenly backed up, crossed three lanes of traffic, slammed his foot on the gas into an illegal right turn and hit the small but sturdy grandmother. At that moment, the officer was not responding to an emergency call and he didn’t give anyone a warning of any kind since his lights and siren were off and he didn’t blow his horn. If anyone other than a police officer on duty drove in this manner and killed a pedestrian, he would be charged with criminal negligence causing death.

For seven years, the police, the provincial Special Investigations Unit (SIU) that probed the case and the officer himself would not divulge where he was going in such a hurry. Toronto Police spokesperson Mark Pugash called the Star to say Quijada-Mancia had been on his way to court. Even if that is so, that didn’t justify this police officer to drive in that manner.

The SIU cleared Quijada-Mancia in February 2004, two months after Lee died, claiming he had only been driving 24 km/h (15 m/h) at the time of impact. Even if that was so, he still made an illegal right turn after crossing three lanes illegally. Furthermore, I don’t think he was going only 24 kilometres an hour when he struck the woman. If that was as slow as he was going, she wouldn’t have been thrown 30 metres (98.4 feet) down the street.

Chen, Lee’s daughter-in-law, was shocked and skeptical when the SIU told her the officer had been driving slowly. According to Lee's family, she landed close to a bus shelter, a far distance from where she had been crossing the road in the designated crosswalk. Chen said, “It seemed like the SIU was helping the police,” Chen said. “The speed of the cruiser – it’s just not possible.”

An internal Toronto Police probe found the constable’s speed was double what the SIU claimed when the agency announced it was not laying a charge. The report by the Toronto Police said that Quijada-Mancia accelerated his vehicle to around 50 km/h from a stopped position.

Superintendent Neale Tweedy, the senior officer who presided over the hearing, wrote that the cruiser was traveling between 45 and 52 km/h, but “while not excessive speed, it was achieved from a stopped position over a short distance.” It certainly would be excessive speed when he is driving over a crosswalk when the signal light facing him is red.

Instead of a criminal charge, Quijada-Mancia faced a far less severe form of justice after pleading guilty to discreditable conduct at an internal police disciplinary hearing. His punishment: loss of a week’s salary.

Quijada-Mancia, now a sergeant, said. “I paid my dues. I don’t think a criminal charge would have made the case against me any stronger. It just would have meant five years in jail.”

New immigrants to Canada, Chen, her husband and young children did not understand English when they spoke to SIU investigators. Chen said the agency did not provide a Cantonese interpreter. An English-speaking friend helped translate, but Chen did not feel she was in a position to argue with government officials.“At least if he had been charged criminally there would be some closure,” Chen said. “Someone would be held accountable and responsible.”

The SIU director at the time, John Sutherland, now a superior court judge working in Toronto, did not return the Star’s calls for comment. I am concerned about a superior court judge sitting on the bench who accepts the word of a police officer when the statement of the police officer is so unbelievable.

The internal sentencing hearing in April 2005 raised “mitigating factors” from Toronto police traffic specialists, including the bright sun and a theory that Lee’s outfit played a role in her death. Her hood was pulled over her head as she walked home on that frigid morning, so she didn’t see the hazard. Does she have to be on the lookout of a cop car that is in the left turn lane?

Quijada-Mancia’s lawyer Gary Clewley said in an interview that the officer could not see the victim because he “got the sun in his eyes.” If that is so, then he should have been wearing sunglasses or have his visor down and definately be driving very slowly.

Before handing down his sentence for this “highly regrettable incident,” Tweedy balanced Lee’s death with the officer’s “good history.”

Quijada-Mancia is a recipient of the Canadian Military Medal, Canadian Peace Keeping Medal and a Toronto police Unit Commander Award. He had considerable remorse, Tweedy wrote, his “degree of negligence was low” and he had a “momentary lapse in judgment.” Many drivers with excellent backgrounds have momentary lapses of judgment but that doesn’t necessarily save them from a term in prison when their lapse of judgment results in an innocent person being killed. Further, I don’t thing that the degree of negligence is low when a driver crosses three lanes of traffic and speeds at least 50 kilometres an hour through a crosswalk when the sun is blinding him. In deciding the officer’s penalty, Tweedy also considered that Quijada-Mancia was fined only $500 for making an improper right turn – a Highway Traffic Act charge that carries two demerit points.

Lee’s family remains bitter about how the SIU seemed eager to sweep the incident into obscurity. When they sued, the officer and police mounted no defense and agreed, without admitting guilt, to pay the claim immediately. The family was awarded $187,525.64 in a civil suit that ended in 2007. The taxpayers paid for this officer’negligence.

Quijada-Mancia did not come to the funeral and never apologized to the family. I can forgive him for that because he has no idea as to how the family would have reacted if they saw him at the funeral.

When asked whether he ever tried to make contact with the family, Quijada-Mancia said “no comment,” but added that he has never known any police officers who have done so. Perhaps if they did, the relationship between police officers and citizens would be better.

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