crime scene wedding photo

A bride with two friends asked a Thunder Bay police officer guarding the scene of a Marina Park death for a photo with his cruiser. He obliged, setting off a round of criticism based on the belief he was disrespecting the victim whose body was removed a day earlier.

BY IAN PATTISON

Thunder Bay police are under the gun again. What else is new? This city’s police force is categorized, sensationalized and criticized like few others.

Maligning the police has become a favourite pastime among a segment of society that looks for and expects the worst in public institutions. Never mind that we couldn’t do without the police.

The well-publicized and heavily-scrutinized actions of a relative handful of Thunder Bay’s 241 front-line police officers is news that’s repeated in detail with each new development.

This force has problems. Decades of policing a city with myriad imported social issues, from motorcycle gangs in the 1960s to heavily armed drug gangs in the 2000s, has hardened veterans and recruits alike to troubles that few of us would dare to face.

Among the greatest challenges for these peace officers is a cultural divide. There is an exploding population of Indigenous people who come here from remote reserves for a variety of reasons.

The sordid history of efforts to colonize a new world and subject its original people has sullied Canada’s story. Those matters are finally being sorted out by sympathetic governments in Ottawa, the provinces and municipalities, and a population that, while concerned about the consequences, is largely on board with making amends.

Policing this cultural divide has not been easy. Most cops do their best under trying circumstances that come with deep distrust of authority.

Some cops, familiar with anti-social behaviour that is plain to see on city streets, tend to generalize, failing to separate the actions of a few Indigenous people from the majority who live peaceably and simply want a better life.

Similarly, the actions of a few have been amplified by some as representative of the entire force, assuming the worst in every interaction between police and Indigenous residents.

While most people have the option of coping with our cultural divide if and when they choose, the urgent nature of emergency response forces both law enforcement and citizens to grapple with the gap instantly, and under the worst of circumstances.

Which brings us to the case of a city cop who allowed a bridal photo shoot with his cruiser while he was helping to guard the scene of an Indigenous woman’s death. The thing is, it seems he had no idea who the victim was or that she was aboriginal.

Many people have jumped to the conclusion that this was another example of rogue behaviour by a police force riddled with racism. If the critics had thought to ask, as I did, they would have learned quite a different story. Here’s what really happened, as outlined by communications director Chris Adams.

After police received a report of a body located at Marina Park early on the morning of Friday, July 8, the Major Crimes Unit moved in to investigate, taping off the scene. The uniformed officer in question was one of two who were providing security outside the tape on July 9.

“He was not part of the Major Crimes Unit and would not have been provided any detailed information regarding the investigation,” Adams said in an email response to questions.

“The identity of the deceased (who was removed from the scene the day before), was not determined until after 5 p.m. on July 9 and that information was not shared with the officers (guarding the) scene by the MCU investigators.”

As he stood outside his cruiser, various people approached this officer as is common during any police action in public, Adams said earlier.

A wedding party arrived at Marina Park to have photos taken. Adams said the officer was approached by the bride who told him that her late father was a retired member of the police department.

There is no indication that the officer knew the bride’s father but there is certainly a bond among police families that is based on a unique understanding of the nature of the job.

“She asked for permission to have photos taken around the cruiser,” Adams said. The officer obliged and pictures were taken with the lake as the background.

Whether or not this was appropriate, the woman’s body was long gone and the officer had no knowledge of her identity or, apparently, her ancestry. He was guarding a piece of land.

As photos were being taken, a friend of the woman and her family arrived to pay respects. Apparently, the woman’s identity had become known among her acquaintances.

The friend’s father reportedly challenged the officer for disrespecting the deceased woman by allowing a photo shoot outside the scene of her death and joking with the wedding party. He took a video and posted it online causing considerable public consternation.

A voice on the video can be heard saying, “That’s the true Thunder Bay right there."

Is it? Is the true Thunder Bay a community that would minimize a person’s death in what appear to be difficult circumstances in a public park?

“There was no intent to cause any indignity or disrespect to anyone,” Adams said earlier.

When he did learn that the visiting family knew the deceased, “The officer offered a sincere apology,” Adams said. Indeed, he may have been as surprised as anyone to learn this was an Indigenous woman in a community where Indigenous death investigations have become so controversial.

Anna Betty Achneepineskum, deputy grand chief of Nishnawbe Aski Nation, said the family is considering asking for a public apology or for the officer — who’s already apologized once — to participate in a sharing circle.

A sharing circle might be appropriate if the officer had willfully disrespected the presence of an Indigenous person’s body. An apology is more appropriate for having engaged in some frivolity while on duty guarding the scene of an investigation serious enough to warrant the presence of major crimes investigators. But that’s as far as it needs to go.

Ian Pattison is retired after 50 years of award-winning journalism at The Chronicle-Journal, but still shares his thoughts on current affairs.