Charges against off-duty cop not a reflection of the entire force, police chief says

Winnipeg police chief Danny Smyth doesn't want the charges against one of his officers to reflect poorly on the rest of the police force.

Expert warns it could diminish public's confidence surrounding anti-drunk driving message

A Winnipeg police officer is charged with impaired driving causing death after 23-year-old Cody Severight was struck and killed Tuesday evening near Main Street and Sutherland Avenue. (Travis Golby/CBC)

Winnipeg police chief Danny Smyth doesn't want the charges against one of his officers to reflect poorly on the rest of the police force.

Constable Justin Holz was charged Wednesday with impaired driving causing death and failure to remain at the scene, after he allegedly struck and killed Cody Severight Tuesday evening, and drove off.

Today Smyth answered questions about the officer, after his first appearance before the city's police board since the incident. 

"It'll be tough for our members because some people will be very upset with the conduct of that individual officer. I don't think it paints a picture of our entire organization," he said.
Winnipeg police chief, Danny Smyth, said he doesn't want charges against one officer to be reflective of the entire police force. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

"Our members are hurting here as well, for the family," Smyth said. "Any of us would be devastated if we lost a loved one to impaired driving, it gets exacerbated when it's a police officer who has been charged in this."

Smyth also told media that the results of a breathalyzer had not yet been analyzed at the time Holz was charged. "So we could see a charge like that being laid down the road," said Smyth.

Chief aware of off-duty drinking parties called 'shifters'

Smyth was asked questions about the practice of police officers going for drinks after their shift, a gathering commonly referred to as "shifters."

"I've heard the term 'shifters', I don't use the term," said Smyth.

"People go out and socialize with their colleagues after work in every walk of life … There's nothing wrong with that and there's nothing wrong with police officers doing that," he said.

But Smyth said he draws the line at what officers choose to do after that.

"I expect my officers … to make good decisions. There's lots of ways to get home without driving [after drinking]," Smyth said.

Resources available to officers

Frank Cormier, a criminologist at the University of Manitoba, says news of a police officer being charged with impaired driving causing death was disappointing, but not entirely surprising.

"It's fairly well known that people in first responder type professions do have higher rates of alcohol and substance abuse for various reasons," said Cormier.

When we become aware that somebody might be struggling with a problem, my first instinct is to try to help them.- Danny Smyth, Winnipeg Police Chief

He said it's common knowledge that part of police subculture involves the use of alcohol.

"It's certainly not unheard of. It's certainly not shocking, but it is disappointing," said Cormier.

A Winnipeg police spokesperson said they don't specifically track alcohol related incidents that don't result in charges, but said any conduct deserving of regulatory action is dealt with internally and not made public.

Smyth said there are several resources available to officers, including a behavioural health unit and a peer support unit.

"When we become aware that somebody might be struggling with a problem, my first instinct is to try to help them, hopefully that doesn't happen at the end of a criminal conduct," he said.

Police should lead by example

Cormier it's difficult for the public to hear the message about the dangers of drinking and driving coming from police, when a member of that same agency is accused of doing that very thing.

"That can really hurt the image of the agency and it can certainly weaken the message they try to send when they do that in the future," said Cormier.

The Winnipeg chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving says the incident makes their message even more relevant.

"It's devastating, it's actually devastating, you don't expect criminal behavior from a police officer," said Denise Elias, president of M.A.D.D. Winnipeg.
Mothers Against Drunk Driving Winnipeg chapter president, Denise Elias, said it was very shocking and disappointing to hear a police officer was charged with impaired driving in the death of a young person. (Holly Caruk/CBC)

"We look up to officers to uphold the law, and it's very frustrating and disappointing," said Elias.

Elias says impaired driving affects everyone and this case should serve as a lesson to everyone about the dangers of drinking and driving.

She says she is heartbroken for the family and hopes people will consider the impacts of drunk driving.

Police 'not immune' to making mistakes

Smyth said he understands the challenges that come when an officer is charged with a criminal offense, but says officers aren't immune to making mistakes.

"[Impaired driving] is a problem in our society in general, we see people that get killed in car accidents with impaired driving, our officers are part of the community too, we're not immune from those problems," said Smyth.

Holz is currently on administrative leave, with pay, while the investigation is underway.

Smyth says further internal disciplinary action is possible, even before the case goes to court, including dismissal of the officer.

"I have some options available to me depending on the circumstances," said Smyth, who added that his options range from keeping "a member on administrative leave at the one end of the scale, or I could recommend for a dismissal."

Smyth says every case is dealt with on its own merits and can only be assessed once the investigation is complete.

With files from Brett Purdy