East St. Paul police, residents surprised by move to disband force

The mood was sombre at the offices of the East St. Paul police department, a day after the provincial government announced the force would be disbanded and replaced with the RCMP.

The mood was sombre at the offices of the East St. Paul police department, a day after the provincial government announced the force would be disbanded.

An undated photo of Crystal Taman, which was filed as evidence at the inquiry examining the investigation into her death. (Taman inquiry)
Justice Minister Dave Chomiak announced Monday that the RCMP would take over policing in the municipality after the release of the report from the inquiry into the investigation of the death of Crystal Taman.

The 40-year-old mother of three was killed in February 2005 when her car was struck from behind by Derek Harvey-Zenk, an off-duty Winnipeg police officer who had spent the night partying with other officers.

The inquiry was called by the province to look into the way the case was handled by the justice system after Harvey-Zenk received a sentence of two years of house arrest.

The report into the inquiry called for another review of operations in the East St. Paul force.

But Chomiak went further, opting for a change in command, rather than another review, in part, he said, because the eight-member force has already been the subject of three reviews over the past few years related to incidents that called into question the way the department was run.

Change not expected: chief

Despite all the damning testimony about the force at the inquiry, East St. Paul police Chief Norm Carter said he didn't see this coming.

"It's difficult," he said. "The RCMP are a fine, fine, fine outfit  — but it certainly is difficult," he said. "They are working very well with us and … we want to make sure that there is a smooth, smooth transition, you know, for the benefit of the residents."

In the short term, four Mounties will help patrol the municipality along with the current police force, said spokeswoman Sgt. Line Karpish. If East St. Paul residents need to get in touch with police, the contact information has not changed, she said.

Peter Hourihan, chief superintendent with the RCMP in Manitoba, says the force's eight officers are welcome to apply to become Mounties.

"Our goal in this — and everybody's — is to provide as gentle a changeover as we possibly can, knowing that it's stressful on everybody," he said.

Shocked, angry: mayor

But municipal officials in East St. Paul say they don't plan to fold the tiny local police force into the RCMP without a fight.

Lawrence Morris, mayor of the Winnipeg bedroom community of 9,000, said everyone is shocked and angry.

A police photo shows wreckage from Crystal Taman's car after the crash on Feb. 25, 2005. ((Taman Inquiry))
The local force "can respond to a call within seven minutes and we're out here 24/7," he said Tuesday before meeting with Chomiak.    "With the RCMP, our citizens are not going to get that service. They're short-staffed. They're not on-call 24/7... By the time they get out to the call, it's hours, maybe sometimes even days."

Coun. Mike Wasylin says even with all the bad publicity, a recent survey of residents indicates people support their own force.

"We have very good response times. We have very good coverage for traffic infractions and high visibility," he said.

"As a result, I think we have a lower crime rate because of the presence of our officers, which you just don't get in other rural areas because RCMP resources are stretched so thin."

East St. Paul council is calling on all residents in the municipality to contact Chomiak and the premier and ask that the local police force remain in charge, Wasylin said.

Crystal Taman's father, Sveinn Sveinson, said he's pleased with the recommendations in the report. He doesn't feel justice has been done in his daughter's case, he said, but he concedes that inquiry commissioner Roger Salhany went as far as his mandate allowed.

Sveinson applauds the province for starting a process to disband the East St. Paul police and replace it with the RCMP.

"It has not functioned as a police force should," he said.

Sveinson also singled out special prosecutor Martin Minuk for criticism, saying Winnipeg lawyers should not be allowed to prosecute such cases.

Further review of former chief's conduct

The inquiry report also recommends the RCMP in British Columbia re-examine the role played in the case by the former East St. Paul police chief Harry Bakema and other key investigating officers at the crash scene.

Former East St. Paul police chief Harry Bakema is shown at the inquiry in July. ((CBC))
The fact that Harvey-Zenk was a police officer affected the way the East St. Paul police handled the case, Salhany wrote. He also noted that Harvey-Zenk once served under Bakema and suggested the former chief gave "untrustworthy and inconsistent testimony" about whether he knew the accused and if he suspected that he had been drinking.
"Sadly, in the case of Chief Harry Bakema, Const. Ken Graham and Const. Jason Woychuk, aspects of the investigation were also conducted in bad faith," wrote Salhany, a retired Ontario Superior Court judge.  

"It is clear that Bakema's conduct, indeed misconduct, had a devastating effect on the ability of a prosecutor to proceed with alcohol-related charges against Zenk."

Bakema's lawyer, Harvey Weinstein, doesn't believe another review is necessary, noting his client's conduct has already come under the scrutiny of the RCMP in Manitoba and the inquiry.

"In the inquiry, we conceded that mistakes were made not only by Mr. Bakema but by other members of the East. St. Paul Police Department," he said. "However, those mistakes were not done to give any benefit to Harveymordenzenk."

Harvey-Zenk, also known as Derek Harveymordenzenk, was initially charged with refusing a breathalyzer test, impaired driving causing death, and criminal negligence causing death. But all alcohol-related charges were dropped when he pleaded guilty to dangerous driving causing death and received a conditional sentence of house arrest. He subsequently turned in his badge and is no longer a police officer.

The $2.6-million inquiry effectively put the justice system and two police forces on trial — the small East St. Paul force that was initially in charge of investigating the crash, and the Winnipeg police force, which was also tasked with some of the investigation, including parts involving its own officers.

Some witnesses testified at the inquiry that they smelled alcohol on Harvey-Zenk's breath after the accident, but that evidence was not recorded or was later mishandled. As a result, the evidence on the alcohol-related charges was weak, the special prosecutor, defence and legal experts testified.

With files from the Canadian Press