Delays in probe of journalists arrested in Hamilton ‘outrageous’: CJFE

Hamilton police arrest Global News videographer Jeremy Cohn near scene of a collision on Evans Road in Waterdown on May 16, 2017. Barry Gray / The Hamilton Spectator

Nearly 10 months after two journalists were tackled and detained by Hamilton police a Canadian press freedom group is calling the unresolved investigation into the arrests by a provincial police watchdog body “completely unacceptable.”

“It’s outrageous really. Justice delayed is justice denied,” said Duncan Pike, co-director of Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE), who has previously called for a public inquiry. “It’s likely an illegal assault on these journalists and it’s a really atrocious violation of press freedom rights.”

READ MORE: Canadian journalism group calls for public inquiry after journalists arrested in Hamilton

Global News journalist Jeremy Cohn and freelance videographer David Ritchie were briefly arrested by officers while covering a fatal crash involving a 10-year-old girl in May 2017.

Cohn and Global filed a complaint with the Ontario’s Office of the Independent Police Review Director (OIPRD), which investigates complaints against police forces across the province. Successful complaints investigated by the OIPRD are then sent to the chief of police and can result in disciplinary action.

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A spokesperson for the OIPRD said it does not comment or offer updates on individual cases, citing privacy concerns.

WATCH: Global News videographer, freelance journalist arrested in Hamilton. 

Click to play video: 'Global News video shows interaction with Hamilton police' Global News video shows interaction with Hamilton police
Global News video shows interaction with Hamilton police – May 17, 2017

Cohn has also filed a lawsuit against Hamilton police, alleging an officer – Hamilton police Const. Jeffrey Todoruck – used excessive force in preventing him from filming and breached his duty by forcefully arresting a clearly identified journalist who was acting peacefully.

“The [Hamilton Police Services] Board has a duty to ensure Hamilton Police Service officers are properly trained to facilitate and respect the right of members of the media to report on matters in the public interest,” read a statement of claim filed by Cohn’s lawyer Peter Jacobsen. “Constable Todoruck breached this duty by wrongfully arresting and detaining Mr. Cohn in order to prevent him from filming and gathering news material.”
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Delays in police complaint investigations

Cohn’s complaint, however, is part of a larger issue when it comes to grievances filed against police forces in the province and how they are investigated.

In 2016-2017, 3,962 cases were managed by OIPRD investigators with 688 complaints carried over from previous years, according to the watchdog’s annual report. Of those complaints, 1,562 were “screened out” meaning they were dismissed for several reasons including bad faith, they were deemed frivolous, or not in the public interest.

Of the roughly 1,600 complaints – 1,365 were referred to the same police service where the complaint originated and is investigated by an officer from the service’s professional standards branch. About 167 cases were handled by roughly 12 investigators with the OIPRD, while another 10 were handled by a different police force.

According to the OIPRDs numbers, OIPRD investigators met the 120-day target to complete an investigate report in just five per cent of cases in 2016-2017, while police services met that target in 52 per cent of cases. The OIPRD notes that the complaints it retains are often more complex and take longer to complete.

READ MORE: Global News journalist files $900K wrongful arrest suit against Hamilton police

Pike says there needs to be more public scrutiny of delays in complaints against police officers.

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“These processes are notorious for dragging on like this and for delaying until it’s so long past [the incident] that so few people remember what is going on and the results are buried,” Pike said.

The Ontario Ministry of the Attorney General would not comment on specific cases or questions about resources and staffing at the OIRPD.

A spokesperson for the police watchdog said that on average it takes “about 144 days to complete an investigation through the public complaints system.”

“We endeavour to complete retained investigations within a 120-day timeline,” Camille Williams said in an email. “In the past we have not met that timeline in a percentage of our cases, but we have made a number of changes and expect that to improve.”

$900K lawsuit filed

Cohn’s lawsuit, in which he is the sole plaintiff, seeks $700,000 in general damages for negligence, false arrest, false imprisonment, assault, battery, intentional infliction of mental suffering and a breach of Cohn’s Charter rights, as well as $200,000 for punitive damages.

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The lawsuit alleges Cohn arrived on scene and learned that Ritchie had been arrested and was being held in a nearby police cruiser and appeared to be shaking and to have trouble breathing. As Cohn went to speak to Ritchie through an open window in the car, Cohn was approached by a “hostile” Todoruck, who refused to explain why the videographer had been detained, the statement of claim says.

Cohn called the Hamilton police media relations officer on speakerphone so that Ritchie could hear, and discussed the situation. He was told to keep calm and go about doing his job, the document says.

WATCH: Raw video shows Global News videographer’s arrest in Hamilton

Click to play video: 'RAW: Freelance photographer captures Global News videographer’s arrest in Hamilton' RAW: Freelance photographer captures Global News videographer’s arrest in Hamilton
RAW: Freelance photographer captures Global News videographer’s arrest in Hamilton – May 17, 2017

Cohn went to shoot footage of the scene and  at some point officers set up police tape, though the lawsuit alleges this was more to keep media away, as residents were allowed inside the perimeter.

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Cohn said he was outside the tape the entire time and made a second call to the media relations officer, who asked to speak with Ritchie, the document says.

But as Cohn approached the cruiser, Todoruck “violently grabbed Mr. Cohn by the arm and told him he was under arrest,” the document says. “At no time did Const. Todoruck advise Mr. Cohn why he was being arrested.”

“Const. Todoruck pressed his knees into Mr. Cohn’s back and then straddled Mr. Cohn with his full body weight, causing Mr. Cohn to experience significant pain and inability to move,” the statement of claim says.

The allegations have not been proven in court and a statement of defence has not yet been filed.

Jacobsen said he is “very concerned” by the nearly 10-month delay and “the failure of the police to provide any explanation or response.”

“No apology was provided and no information about the steps taken by Hamilton Police Service to address this egregious conduct has been communicated to Mr. Cohn or Global News. To date, Mr. Cohn and Global News still have not received any explanation from the Hamilton Police Service for Mr. Cohn’s arrest.”

Charges of resisting and obstructing police against Ritchie were dropped in October 2017 after a negotiated settlement with Crown prosecutors. He will have to do 12.5 hours of community service and donate $250. He also has to keep the peace for a year.

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Global News reached out to Hamilton police who declined to comment “as the matter is both before the courts and the OIPRD.”

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