Vu Pham inquest: Outcome rests in the hands of the jury
London Community News
By Paul Everest/London Community News/Twitter: @PaulEverest1
“We speak for the dead in order to protect the living.”
Coroner’s counsel Mark Poland offered this quote to the five-person jury overhearing the inquest into the shooting deaths of OPP Const. Vu Pham and Fred Preston.
The jury retired Thursday afternoon (April 12) to consider a verdict on the causes of the deaths of the two men and recommendations that will hopefully prevent similar tragedies in the future.
Before they were released to deliberate, Poland, along with Shona Miller, counsel for the OPP Association, and Ken Hogg, counsel for the OPP, discussed a number of suggested recommendations for the jury to consider based on evidence heard from 33 witnesses over 12 days of testimony.
The proposed recommendations agreed upon by the three parties focus on:
- Public education campaigns on domestic violence.
- Improving the checklists OPP call takers and dispatchers use when assessing risks of violence associated with domestic violence calls and making such checklists more accessible to all communications personnel. The checklists would include more risk factors indicating someone involved in a domestic dispute may resort to lethal violence based on Ontario Domestic Violence Death Review Committee policy.
- Updating OPP training protocols so that police can become more familiar with risk factors associated with the potential for homicides in a domestic violence situation.
- Amending the OPP’s current domestic violence policy to better protect third parties.
- Providing real-time Intergraph Computer Assisted Dispatch (ICAD) information in all police vehicles to give police greater access to information coming in to OPP call takers and dispatchers regarding domestic violence situations.
- Enhancing OPP firearms training to include an instinctual shooting component. This suggestion comes from the testimony of Pham’s partner, Const. Dell Mercey, who engaged in a firefight with Preston.
- Encouraging the provincial Community Safety and Correctional Services Ministry to adopt a standardized intake form for women’s shelters that would let care workers collect more information from victims fleeing domestic violence and allow for a more thorough evaluation of any pending risks of lethal violence.
There were also several suggested recommendations that were not necessarily agreed upon by coroner’s counsel, the OPP or the OPP Association, but none of the three parties opposed them.
- Encouraging the Ontario Women’s Directorate to support and fund education on domestic violence.
- Researching and investigating ways to break down barriers that prevent families from reporting domestic violence.
Poland also encouraged the jury to consider a recommendation for the provincial Transportation Ministry to study the possibility of amending the Highway Traffic Act to make it illegal for a person pulled over by police to leave their vehicle.
Although he said such an amendment would not have stopped Preston from shooting at Pham and Mercey, it might give police another second or two of warning. If a person did get out of their vehicle during a stop, Poland said, an officer would know the person intends to do something illegal or they have an emergency that requires police attention immediately.
“A second or two is all it takes to make a huge difference,” he said, adding that an OPP training specialist who testified during the inquest said Pham was behind a “reaction curve” by only moments when Preston came out of his truck, grabbed a rifle and shot him.
Had the amendment been in place, Pham may have had a few seconds’ more warning and could have protected himself, Poland said.
“The benefit is huge and the cost is minimum. Why not give these officers that margin of time that might make the difference between the next inquest and an officer going home to his or her family at the end of a shift.”
Miller told the jury the OPP Association, which represents OPP employees, supports an idea brought up during the inquest about making it mandatory for shelters and medical personnel to inform police if any person comes to them in need of protection from domestic violence.
“This concept of legislatively mandated reporting is not new and exists in a number of U.S. states,” she said, adding that in 2010, the government of Ontario made it law for employers to report domestic violence in their workplaces.
Mandatory reporting, Miller said, would benefit victims, the larger community, the courts and those who provide services to victims. It puts control of a situation into the hands of police and takes control away from aggressors, she argued, adding that because neither Preston’s family, nor the shelter where his estranged wife fled to before the shooting, reported instances of domestic violence, Preston had control “to the detriment of police and the community.”
But Poland and Hogg suggested caution for the idea of mandatory reporting.
“We want to be careful not to discourage women from going to shelters,” Hogg said.
Poland said this recommendation did not arise from any evidence given during the inquest and, while thoughtful, could carry “unintended consequences.”
He pointed to the testimony of the executive director of the North Bay shelter where Preston’s wife fled to after her husband threatened her. Janine Lafreniere said if a victim knows police involvement is certain if she goes to a shelter due to domestic violence, she may decide not to seek refuge or she may hold back vital details about the abuse she has received.
Poland instead proposed that shelters could pass on information to police when a client discloses an ongoing and credible threat that could affect the victim, shelter or any of the victim’s family, friends or associates.
Hogg told the jury that the OPP has already begun implementing changes based on the shooting, such as a training scenario modelled on the vehicle stop conducted by Pham and Mercey, to help police better deal with similar situations in the future.
He said one of the suggested recommendations the OPP supports is treating complaints about domestic violence and threats in a similar manner when it comes to firearms checks conducted by dispatchers on all involved parties. While a policy is in place regarding firearms checks for domestic violence situations and threats calls, it needs to be made clearer, Hogg said.
The jury is not required to pass any recommendations and if it does, there does not need to be unanimous consent on any recommendations, only a majority vote.
The jury is expected to offer their recommendations Friday (April 13).