It seems more than one line may have been crossed last week in the aftermath of a lengthy investigation that took down a front line member of the Winnipeg Police Service.
On September 16, 2016, Deputy Chief Danny Smyth held a press conference announcing the arrest of Constable Trent Milan (42), an eighteen (18) year veteran of the Service.
Smyth indicated the investigation into Milan’s conduct dated back to 2010 when he was assigned to the Street Crime Unit. The allegations pertain to his handling of property, drugs and cash seized in a number of criminal investigations.
Milan, it seems, is Winnipeg’s mini version of infamous NYPD crooked cop Michael Dowd whose criminal exploits were recently explored in a 2014 Netflix documentary called The Seven Five. (Dowd worked in the 75th precinct in New York City.)
When the dust settled, Dowd was convicted of racketeering and conspiracy to distribute narcotics.
He was sentenced to 14 years in prison.
If convicted, Milan could suffer a similar fate.
The Fall From Grace
So how does a member of a Police Force, who takes the sacred oath to serve and protect, fall so far from grace.
It can be complicated.
That’s because human beings are complicated.
Flawed, imperfect, weak…
Trent Milan is not the first WPS Officer to tarnish the badge in this fashion and he won’t be the last.
Milan and others before him fell prey to the lure one or more of the seven deadly sins. Most often greed, addiction (booze or drugs) or sex are the culprits.
There are no excuses.
These are lines that can never be crossed.
So How Did We Get Here?
While I’ll never truly understand how a Police Officer could sacrifice his career, reputation and ability to support his family, my experience on the inside gives me unique insight into how we got here.
That understanding requires a brief history lesson.
On November 21, 2005 the Winnipeg Police Service officially launched Operation Clean Sweep, a task force consisting of uniform police officers mandated to combat street-level violence and the criminals who threatened public safety.
The Task Force was launched in response to the October 10, 2005 killing of seventeen (17) year old Phillip Haiart, an unintended victim of indiscriminate gunfire exchanged by rival street gangs.
African Mafia street gang associate Jeffrey Hernandez Cansanay was convicted of 2nd degree murder in the killing and was sentenced to fifteen (15) years in prison.
Operation Clean Sweep was a highly successful initiative reporting an average of over one hundred (100) arrests per month during the early phase of the unit’s operation. The affected neighbourhoods enjoyed the reprieve from the arson, shootings and the precipitous violence they were experiencing.
The Police Service received significant criticism when they pulled the plug on the highly popular crime fighting initiative.
Enter the Street Crimes Unit.
The Street Crimes Unit was launched to fill the void left by the dissolution of Operation Clean Sweep.
The Street Crimes Unit mandate was indistinguishable from Operation Clean Sweep – quell the violence, suppress the street gang activity and enhance public safety.
The Unit became a force within the Police Service and launched many successful proactive anti street gang operations including Project Falling Star and Project Recall – investigations that resulted in the arrest of dozens of gang members and significant seizures of drugs, cash, guns, ammunition, ballistic vests and other weapons.
Officers who worked in the Street Crimes Unit became highly skilled in the art of informant cultivation, intelligence gathering and covert operations.
Informant cultivation and handling is high jeopardy work that can be both dangerous and complex.
Conversely – gang members, informants, sex trade workers and dedicated criminals put a great deal of energy into corrupting Law Enforcement Officers.
Informant cultivation and handling is a necessary evil that exponentially increases the effectiveness of Law Enforcement.
Corrupting Law Enforcement is a necessary evil that exponentially increases the effectiveness of Organized Crime.
It’s “greasy” work no matter what entity is involved in it.
The First Line
We can’t talk about lines being crossed without being frank in the admission the first line is crossed when a police officer allows him or herself to be compromised.
There is no excuse.
The betrayal of the public trust is egregious and police officers must be held accountable.
Police officers working the right side of the thin blue line often agree the punishment for wayward officers must be more severe than what an average citizen might receive. Serving officers feel a tremendous sense of betrayal when these cases arise, after all, they’re the ones subjected to the public outrage, anger and hostility.
“The public just doesn’t get that nobody feels more angry, betrayed, sad, let down, and deceived when an officer is charged with something like this than their fellow officers,” one officer wrote on social media.
There are few professions, aside from Law Enforcement, where the masses are quicker to judge the majority based on the actions of the few.
(Statistics show the number of officers charged with crimes represent a micro percentage of the men and women who serve in Law Enforcement.)
The Second Line
If you consider the defence lawyer perspective, the presumption of innocence and the right to a fair trial may have been the second line that was crossed.
That line was crossed at the police presser by WPS Deputy Chief Danny Smyth who was candid in his remarks to the press;
“Uh initially, I like to believe in our people, and I reacted with disbelief initially. I can tell you during the course of this investigation my emotions have run from disbelief to anger to disappointment to resolve and now here today, to actually some relief that we have brought this member essentially to justice now.”
A defence attorney would tell you, as upsetting and morally reprehensible as this case may be, it’s extremely important for people to remember Constable Milan only stands accused and has the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty.
It’s the same right enjoyed by every Canadian citizen living within our borders.
Milan also has the right to a fair trial as guaranteed by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
A skilled criminal defence attorney might suggest that right may be infringed when a high-ranking, well-regarded police official essentially convicts the accused person in the court of public opinion by sharing his feelings and belief the officer’s arrest is tantamount to some form of “justice.”
Deputy Smyth continued…
“We recognize that the actions of this one member were inexcusable but they don’t reflect or represent the vast majority of our members who do excellent work with the community and who are engaged with the community on a daily basis.”
The guilt of the officer is certainly implied in the Deputy’s comments.
While the media may appreciate the Deputy Chief’s candor – a criminal defence lawyer might ask – “Is this kind of disclosure appropriate?”
“Is it appropriate if the disclosure removes the officers presumption of innocence or contaminates the jury pool?”
I’ve known Deputy Chief Smyth for almost thirty years and can attest to the fact he’s an intelligent, hardworking, passionate member of the Police Service.
I also understand the need to reassure the public but I wonder what impact his comments to the media might have on a serious ongoing criminal case that has yet to be adjudicated by the Courts.
Time will tell.
The Third Line
The Winnipeg Free Press crossed the third line in a profoundly irresponsible way.
The WFP website is normally my first stop when I look for #breakingnews stories involving crime and punishment.
As I perused the story, penned by respected journalist Kevin Rollason, I was shocked to see a photograph of Constable Milan’s residence in Oakbank, Manitoba.
It was stunning.
I wondered what argument could have possibly been made to justify inserting the photograph into the story.
Does the photograph add substance or enhance the story some how?
Does the public have a right to know, or in this case, see a photograph of the accused officer’s family home?
Does the public have a right to know where the officer and his family live?
Surely the Editor would have known the publication of the photograph could pose significant safety risks to Milan, his wife, siblings, parents, in-laws or anyone else who may be present at his home.
It’s not a big stretch to assume Constable Milan may have the odd enemy or two after working in a unit known to target violent gang members and street thugs.
Assuming the allegations against him have merit, it’s even more likely the publication of the photograph has raised the danger he and his family now face.
I’d be interested to hear the justification.
The Final Word
I’ll leave the last word to Winnipeg Police Association President Maurice Sabourin who put the officer’s arrest into context;
“The thing I would like to get across to the citizens of Winnipeg is that you shouldn’t lose any confidence in the Winnipeg Police Service because our members are committed to protecting and serving the citizens of Winnipeg and this is an isolated incident.”
The Press Release
I do not personally know Constable Trent Milan and do not recall ever having met him.