David Cunningham takes on the cops
David Cunningham is taking the law into his own hands. Frustrated with delays from the Vancouver Police Department’s internal investigation, the anti-poverty activist launched his own criminal charges against the police officer who threw him through a glass window.
With the help of the Pivot Legal Society, Cunningham is using a little known and rarely used loophole in Canada’s common law which allows individuals the opportunity to press criminal charges against someone instead of waiting for the police or Crown counsel to do so. The move appears to have worked and last Monday Crown prosecutors agreed to take responsibility of the case.
‘We have absolutely no faith or trust whatsoever in the police complaints process,’ says Cunningham, a member of the Anti-Poverty Committee and the Downtown Eastside Residents Association. ‘But if you can criminally charge these officers, essentially you’re taking away their gun and badge.’
The confrontation with the accused police officer, Const. Wade Rodrigue, occurred last April when Cunningham was sharing a cigarette with a friend outside his office on East Hastings. Cunningham has said that Rodrigue and two other officers approached him thinking it was a possible drug deal. Although he committed no crime, Cunningham ended up handcuffed and being pushed into the glass window of a pharmacy storefront.
‘I don’t think it’s an approach that police would take in another neighbourhood if somebody was dressed well,’ says John Richardson, the executive director of the Pivot Legal Society. ‘But Dave can be a scruffy guy and he’s had run-ins with that officer before.‘
The Vancouver Police Department said Cunningham was verbally aggressive, the incident was an accident and they apologsed. An unsatisfied Cunningham quickly launched a complaint to the police against Rodrigue, but says he only got one phone call in five months saying the police wanted to interview him about the incident but never set up a time.
Frustrated with the lack of progress, Cunningham took his private prosecution to the courts and in early September a provincial court judge approved the charges.
‘In a perfect world police would investigate all the crimes and the police are the best people to investigate generally,’ says Richardson. ‘But when the allegation is about police misconduct, our current system is based on police investigating themselves and that doesn’t inspire public confidence especially amongst people that have already experienced police misconduct.’
The police complaints process has been heavily criticised in BC as being biased and ineffective. If Cunningham’s case goes through, it could open a watershed of public complaints against corrupt police officers. Anyone who feels they were treated criminally by the police can simply go before a justice of the peace and swear in a one page information sheet what the charge is. The matter is then presented to a judge who will decide whether to approve the charges.
But while private prosecutions have worked with some success in Ontario, they have been completely unsuccessful in BC. Despite the fact that the Attorney General has decided to take up Cunningham’s case, they could stay or drop the charges at any time. But Cunningham says it’s important to keep pressing with the case.
‘It’s really huge and the consequence and fallout could be enormous,’ he says. ‘We‘ve got people lined up who were way more brutalised than I was and we’re ready to go through and continue to hammer away until we break through this precedent.’
Crown counsel will now review the case and make a formal decision on November 16 (2004) whether or not to pursue charges against Rodrigue.