You might not want to convict Winnipeg Police Officer Constable Justin Holz (34) of anything just yet.
Holz was charged with Impaired Driving Causing Death & Failure to Stop at the Scene of an Accident Involving Death as a result of his alleged involvement in a fatal motor vehicle collision involving a pedestrian.
The incident occurred on October 10, 2017 at approximately 8:00 p.m., in the area of Main Street and Sutherland Avenue.
The victim was identified as 23-year-old Cody Severight.
Police Chief Danny Smyth was quick to hold a presser to apologize to Severight’s family, identify the involved officer and face a barrage of questions from the media.
“This is an unexpected tragedy. This officer will be held accountable for his actions. I want to make it clear that Constable Holz is being investigated criminally for his conduct, he will be treated accordingly regardless of the fact that he’s a member of the police service.” said Smyth.
Despite the Chief’s assurances that justice will be done, let us not forget, Holz, like anyone else, has the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty.
In reality, convicting him might be more difficult than you would think.
When I read the Independent Investigation Unit of Manitoba’s media release I noticed a significant omission.
In most cases of impaired driving, you can expect to see charges of drive over .08 or refuse a breathalyzer.
There were no such charges laid against Holz.
That seemed peculiar.
Police Chief Danny Smyth confirmed Holz consented to a breathalyzer test but was not able to confirm a reading.
At this point, I think its safe to assume Holz was under the legal driving limit of 80 milligrams of alcohol per 100 millilitres of blood.
That will surely complicate things for the prosecutor.
Convicting someone of Impaired Driving when they blow under the legal limit, while not impossible, is certainly no slam dunk.
The alcohol reading surely won’t be the only issue raised at trial.
The Main Street Strip, as it is often called, is notorious for being a freeway for unpredictable, intoxicated jaywalkers who beat a path across eight lanes of traffic making their rounds to the seedy Hotels who specialize in grossly over serving their clientele.
(Having policed this area for several years I can tell you the problem is a real.)
You can expect the blood alcohol & toxicology findings from Mr. Severight’s autopsy to be raised as a potential issue at trial.
Randy Turner covered the issue of intoxicated jaywalkers in last Saturday’s edition of the Winnipeg Free Press with his story, “A tragedy waiting to happen.”
Turner quotes Leslie Spillett, former Winnipeg Police Board member, who said, “People live in this neighbourhood. There are children and elders, old men. They deserve to be treated as human beings.”
I don’t recall anyone suggesting the people who live in this neighbourhood were somehow less than human beings.
How did the issue so profoundly devolve?
The “real” issue certainly involves off duty officer conduct, police culture and drinking & driving.
In the postscript Chief Danny Smyth suggested, police officers, like anyone, are entitled to get together to socialize after work. Impaired driving, he suggests, is a problem for society in general;
“We see people that get killed in car accidents and with impaired driving. Our officers are part of the community too, we’re not immune from those problems.”
In an opinion piece in the Winnipeg Free Press, police antagonist Gordon Sinclair Jr suggests there is, “No place for shifters in modern-day policing.”
Sinclair infers Smyth somehow has the authority to control the drinking habits of his off duty officers.
The suggestion is absurd.
When I joined the WPS in 1987, after-hours socializing was an important part of the job.
It’s how we connected on a deeper level, developed trust, bonds and friendships.
As a rookie cop, I enjoyed the after-hours camaraderie.
It was a different time.
A time when off duty officers smoked heavily, drank hard and rarely made arrangements for a safe ride home.
Police officers in those days undoubtedly used alcohol to treat job-related emotional trauma.
We didn’t share our feelings, put vulnerabilities on display or book appointments with a trained mental health professional.
That’s because the Police Service didn’t have trained mental health professionals in those days.
With the passage of time, things began to slowly change.
Part of the change came from a deeper understanding of the effects of job-related emotional trauma (PTSD) and the dangers associated with the use of alcohol or drugs to self-medicate.
The wake-up call came in 2005, the year an off duty police officer killed Crystal Taman in a rear end collision after leaving a “shifter.”
The officer was originally charged with Impaired Driving Causing Death, Refusing a Breathalyzer Demand and Criminal Negligence Causing Death.
He was ultimately convicted of Dangerous Driving Causing Death.
The Taman family was devastated by the loss of their beloved Crystal and were re-victimized by their experience in the criminal justice system.
The officer lost his career, his ability to provide for his family and his standing in the community.
Worst of all, he had to live and still lives with the fact he killed an innocent woman, a wife, a mother, a daughter and more…
It was a tragedy of epic proportions.
A completely avoidable tragedy.
It changed the way many of us socialized.
Invitations to shifters or house parties started to come with prerequisites – attendees had to have transportation previously arranged with designated drivers, taxi cabs or limousines.
I hosted parties with those prerequisites as did many of my friends in Law Enforcement.
It made for stress-free social gatherings.
No one was leaving the party driving drunk.
No horrific headlines in the morning newspaper.
No lives destroyed.
How Did We Forget So Soon?
It’s been twelve (12) years since Crystal Taman was killed.
How did we forget so soon?
There should never have been a need for a second wake up call.
Police Officers must never forget the lessons learned from past tragedies.
Those lessons must create a metamorphosis into a new kind of cop culture.
The culture of responsibility, accountability, and integrity.
The culture of intelligent decision-making.
The culture of sober off duty driving.
Police Officers simply must do better.