History's most famous "perp walk"

It’s about time someone from the Alberta legal community spoke up about the Calgary Police Service’s disgraceful practice of publicly parading suspects in serious criminal cases, often where identification of the perpetrator of the crime is certain to be an issue at trial, in front of a mob of reporters and media camera-people.

In a recent letter to Calgary Police Chief Rick Hanson, Airdire defence lawyer Alan Pearse expressed his “profound revulsion” at the way his client was forced to do the “perp walk” by the CPS, with the enthusiastic approval and participation of the Calgary media.

Here’s to Pearse for having the courage to speak up clearly about a disreputable and possibly illegal practice that has been going on regularly in Calgary for more than 30 years without anyone who could do anything about it uttering a peep of protest.

Pearse must have known he would be the subject of a certain amount of ugly abuse from the online peanut gallery of the media, social and otherwise, because his client is accused of a particularly repulsive and horrifying crime, the murder of three people, one of them a little child.

But this isn’t about a particular crime, it’s about a practice that has been routine for many years in a large number of cases by the Calgary Police Service. The purpose of which has to be to interfere with the administration of justice and create the impression accused people – who often have only a shaky case against them — are guilty.

This is a natural and understandable tendency on the part of police officers, who deal with a pretty disgusting element of society in the course of their work, and thus often develop an attitude over years on the job that pretty well everyone is guilty of something anyway and so there’s nothing immoral about bending the rules of due process a little to help the Crown Prosecution Service get a conviction.

It’s a little easier to blame the media for turning up for these little medieval carnivals regularly staged at the Arrest Processing Unit, or whatever they call it nowadays. Nevertheless, the media’s still a competitive business, staffed by people who are not particularly deep thinkers (there’s a good reason most of them didn’t go to law school), with their agenda set by Sun Media, which sees its mission as reinforcing Conservative talking points about crime.

But it’s an absolute disgrace that until Pearse came along no one in the Southern Alberta legal community — that I’ve ever heard of, anyway — has spoken up publicly about this practice. Perhaps Alberta lawyers talk about it among themselves, or complain privately to judges in chambers, but it’s very rare it becomes a public issue, and then not for long.

The Calgary Herald’s report of Pearse’s letter contained some solemn utterances by the usual suspects about how “perp walks” serve a useful social function by reminding honest citizens that their police are hard at work solving crimes, and moreover that they might “trigger a memory” in the mind of a dozy witness.

This is pure baloney. The purpose of the perp walk is to incline the public toward a presumption of guilt, even the case against the accused is weak — especially if the case against the accused is weak. If any memories are intended to be triggered, they’re of the false variety.

The Herald story about Pearse’s remarks gave no hint this has been a routine practice in Calgary for years — understandable, I guess, since the Herald has always been an enthusiastic participant and, certainly in my day there, was completely immune to arguments the use of the photographs and commentary from these travesties of justice were almost certainly in contempt of court.

When I worked as night city editor of the Calgary Herald, the process worked like this: The Photo Desk would get a call from someone at police headquarters with the name of the accused, and the precise time he (or, occasionally, she) would be frog marched past the cameras from the paddy wagon to the back door of the APU. The police could be counted on to make the walk a long one, so there was plenty of opportunity to get lots of humiliating pictures.

The Photo Desk would alert the City Desk, which would decide whether or not it was worth sending a reporter along. Whether or not the reporter went, a photographer always did. Snap-snap!

There’s no evidence from the news coverage coming out of Calgary that this practice has ever changed since I left that publication and the city in 2000.

If you’re a pathetic specimen of humanity at the best of times, in handcuffs, and a little scuffed around the edges from your arrest, this sure as hell makes you look guilty of a criminal offence, as all the cheerful participants in this little charade know perfectly well, and plan for.

Usually the victims of this folly, of course, aren’t people charged in high profile murders, but the scruffy losers from the most pathetic corners of the criminal world who hold up corner stores and are given Bandit nicknames by the police, which the media gleefully repeat ad nauseam. You know, the “Clown Bandit,” because he had bad hair; the “Gentleman Bandit,” because he didn’t use the F-word; the “Pony Tail Bandit,” because she had a blonde pony tail; and, my personal favourite, the “Irreconcilable Differences Bandit,” because he told his victims his divorce was costing him big time.

Nothing wrong with the practice of giving bandits nicknames, by the way. It’s said to help the police catch these guys, and that’s a goal that’s good for society.

And, in fact, they usually are guilty, which doesn’t alter one bit the need for due process and the presumption of innocence, even if these concepts are too complicated for your typical Sun News Network viewer.

There is something quite wrong, however, with making sure the accused persons have a nice long walk from the paddy wagon to the back door of the police station while the cameras clatter so that the police can shore up a shaky identification in the minds of some future jury.

In addition to perverting the course of justice, this can even put the accused’s life at risk, as shown by the most famous perp walk of all, Lee Harvey Oswald’s in 1963 in Dallas.

Other Canadian police departments have a better record with this kind of nonsense than Calgary’s. I’ve no idea why. Perhaps someone spoke up about it.

The cost of fixing it is extremely low. You drive the prisoner-transport van into an indoor garage, close the door, and then move the accused to the APU. And if the media doesn’t get the opportunity to satisfy its institutional voyeurism? Oh well. So sad, too bad. A more important principle is at stake.

This practice by the Calgary Police Service will never be fixed until the legal community speaks up — and, probably, not before a judge sees fit to slap a charge of contempt of court on some of the people in the police and media who make this happen for interfering with the administration of justice and impairing the authority of the court.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga’s blog, Alberta Diary.

David J. Climenhaga

David J. Climenhaga

David Climenhaga is a journalist and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. He left journalism after the strike...