Repeat of botched Crystal Taman-police crash case 'virtually impossible,' criminologists say

Two Manitoba criminologists, one the head of a commission created in the wake of Crystal Taman’s death, say they’re confident the new system of police oversight in place today will avoid the pitfalls that sank the investigation into Derek Harvey-Zenk, the former Winnipeg police officer officer charged in that case.

Creation of Independent Investigation Unit changed the way police investigate police

Crystal Taman died on Feb. 25, 2005 after her car was hit while stopped at a traffic light on Highway 59. (CBC)

The investigation into an alleged hit-and-run and impaired driving fatality involving a Winnipeg police officer has dredged up painful memories of the botched probe into the 2005 death of Crystal Taman.

But two Manitoba criminologists — one of whom led a commission created in the wake of Taman's death — say they're confident the system of police oversight in place today will prevent the pitfalls that sank the investigation into Derek Harvey-Zenk, the former Winnipeg police officer charged in the 2005 case.

University of Manitoba Prof. Frank Cormier said the biggest difference between then and now is the existence of the Independent Investigation Unit, created in 2015.

"I don't think there's any way, even if someone had some ill intent, if officers had wanted to engage in some kind of coverup, it would have been virtually impossible with the presence of the IIU," Cormier said.

Police arrested Justin Holz, an off-duty police constable, shortly after 23-year-old Cody Severight was hit and killed while crossing Main Street near Sutherland Avenue on Tuesday. The vehicle left the scene.

Holz, a criminal investigator with eight years experience, was arrested about seven kilometres away. He has been charged with impaired driving causing death and failing to remain at the scene.

The IIU, which automatically has jurisdiction in incidents involving police where someone is injured or dies, has taken over the case.

Ex-police investigating police?

Robert Taman, the husband of Crystal Taman, served on the Manitoba Police Commission, which was created in part to implement the Police Services Act, passed in response the inquiry into his wife's death. He quit the commission, however, over concerns about IIU investigators — some of whom are former law enforcement officers — investigating police.

"Most times, everybody's just too close. They're like a family, and it's pretty hard for them to be objective and to do their jobs properly knowing that it's their own that they're investigating. And I still feel that way, and I'm always going to feel that way," he said.

Rick Linden, who headed the Manitoba Police Commission, stressed that the unit is an independent body, pointing out that the guiding legislation requires that the IIU's executive director have no history as a police officer. Its current executive director, Zane Tessler, is a former prosecutor.

"These are civilians, many of whom have police backgrounds. So there aren't concerns about conflict of interest in the sense of investigating one of your own members or colleagues," said Linden, who also teaches criminology at the University of Manitoba.

Cormier says the rules in place now likely would have changed the outcome of the investigation into Taman's death.

Botched investigation

Taman, a 40-year-old mother of three, had left her home only minutes before she was struck and killed by Harvey-Zenk's vehicle. (CBC)

On Feb. 25, 2005, an off-duty Winnipeg police officer Derek Harvey-Zenk smashed into the back of Crystal Taman's car while she was stopped at a red light. Harvey-Zenk had been partying with colleagues hours earlier. 

Harvey-Zenk initially faced several charges, including refusing a breathalyzer sample and impaired driving causing death, but a controversial plea bargain led to all charges being dropped except for the charge of dangerous driving causing death, for which he was sentenced to two years of house arrest.

During testimony at the inquiry into the case, a paramedic and police constable who attended the scene said they smelled alcohol on Harvey-Zenk, but the constable said she didn't record that in her notes because she wasn't the investigating officer, and the paramedic said he didn't tell officers. 

One police officer told the inquiry that he was ordered by then East St. Paul police chief Harold Bakema to put Harvey-Zenk in the back of a cruiser and do nothing. Another police officer, who was also Taman's cousin, told the inquiry Bakema admitted to him that Harvey-Zenk was drunk.

Derek Harvey-Zenk pleaded guilty to dangerous driving causing death. (CBC)

Bakema was charged with obstruction of justice, but he was acquitted.

At the time, although it was standard practice for outside police forces to take over investigations into cases involving an officer, there were no clear rules around when an outside investigator should be brought in, and whom it should be, Cormier said.

IIU investigations 'virtually automatic'

Now, the IIU's involvement is "virtually automatic" any time there is a serious incident involving police where someone is hurt or killed, Cormier said.

In addition to preventing actual investigative bias, the creation of the IIU was intended to improve the public perception of investigations involving members of the police.

"Most of the investigations that these units conduct exonerate the officers, and so if that is to be done, it's important that the public feel that the investigation has been done efficiently, effectively and competently so that they trust the results," said Linden.

Tessler said the IIU was notified about the arrest of the police officer shortly after it happened, and investigators were dispatched to four locations: the scene of the collision, the scene of the arrest, the hospital where the victim was taken, and police headquarters, where the officer was giving a breathalyzer sample.

The investigators are sent to ensure that scenes are maintained, evidence is handled properly and witnesses dealt with, Tessler said.

Although they might avail themselves of the resources of particular police units — such as traffic reconstruction experts — IIU investigators remain in control and report solely to Tessler, he said.

"Police services in Manitoba do not direct our investigations, they have no input in our investigations, they have no control of our investigations, they have nothing to do with our investigations," he said.

And although IIU members might have previous employment with a police force, their lead investigators would never come from the same police department they are investigating, Tessler said.

Members of Severight's family have said they plan to sue the Winnipeg Police Service over his death.

With files from Meaghan Ketcheson and Austin Grabish