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Bob Wakeham: Dunphy’s death was senseless — period

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Leo Barry may have been hampered by judicial caution to say it outright, but my journalistic flexibility requires no such restriction: Don Dunphy’s shooting death at the hands of Const. Joe Smyth was unequivocally, positively and, sadly, avoidable.

Bob Wakeham

Barry, in the report of his inquiry into the Easter Sunday 2015 tragedy, made recommendations that were unarguably sound, among them the need for members of the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary to be better trained in de-escalation tactics and the requirement in Newfoundland for a civilian-led oversight committee to investigate “serious incidents” involving police. (The latter suggestion is not exactly unique: how many times has it been said in countless jurisdictions, after innumerable events, that cops investigating cops is inevitably a conflict of interest, and does nothing but diminish the faith of citizenry in its police force?)

And Barry’s finding that the RCMP (despite its kid-glove handling of Smyth) had no choice but to conclude that Smyth acted in self-defence was totally predictable: after all, there were two people who witnessed the shooting and only one lived to tell the story; any chance for a second spin on what transpired in Mitchell’s Brook, an account that might have altered the investigation, and Barry’s assessment, disappeared the moment Dunphy died.

But there was more than enough in the evidence presented to Barry during the inquiry hearings to surmise that this shooting should never, ever have occurred.

For shocking instance: Smyth did not properly identify himself at Dunphy’s door as a member of the premier’s protective unit, and, as Barry himself noted, Dunphy, therefore, was not able to make an informed decision about the policeman’s request to enter his home. In other words, if Smyth had followed the proper procedure in these matters, there’s a damn good chance Dunphy would still be alive, because he might have told the cop where to go and how to get there. The shooting would not have taken place.

For another disconcerting instance: Barry’s recommendation that the premier’s “protective services unit” be supervised by senior officers of the Constabulary contains an inference that the approach in the Dunphy case, decided upon by a minor official in then premier Paul Davis’ office, and Smyth himself, was pathetically deficient, with deadly consequences.

A communications officer, a public relations flack, certainly no expert in the matter of threats, was the person who decided that a tweet from Dunphy — the type of saucy, blunt messages politicians get all the time — was unsettling enough to be handed over to Smyth. And it was Smyth who then decided arbitrarily to head to Mitchell’s Brook to confront Dunphy. (It should be remembered, as well, that Smyth wasn’t exactly open-minded in his attempt to try and “build a rapport,” as he ironically put it, with Dunphy, informing a fellow cop that he was dealing with a “lunatic threatening the premier.”) Again: if there had been some sort of professional, sophisticated protocol in place within the premier’s office and within the protective unit, and, if Smyth had travelled to Dunphy’s home with a more objective mindset, the shooting would have been avoided.

And how about the tweets themselves?

Barry felt they were worthy of “follow-up.” Well, perhaps follow-up that was half-sensible: a phone call, an email, a meeting. Not an unannounced visit on an Easter Sunday by an armed cop believing he was dealing with a “lunatic.”

Dunphy was a man who for over 20 years had been demanding satisfaction from government officials and politicians he believed had done him a disservice; he was fighting the system, and, as have many people who have found themselves in that embattled situation, was unrelenting, and, at times, over-zealous, unambiguously frank and occasionally rude.

So what! Last week, July l, we remembered Beaumont Hamel, and I’ll bet the men who were killed on that disastrous day, or maimed physically or affected mentally for life, would have liked to have thought that their sacrifice, in some way, meant the Don Dunphys of Newfoundland would always live in a place where they could say what was on their mind, in their own way, to those elected to govern.

It was also Canada Day when we celebrated the advantages of living in the kind of country where we have freedom of speech, and rules that pay more than token attention to the sanctity of a person’s home.

Members of Don Dunphy’s family, especially his daughter Meghan, who handled herself with laudable grace and class throughout the Barry hearings, will never recover totally from his death, but perhaps they can take some solace, as emotionally limited as it is, in the knowledge that the chances that there will be a repeat somewhere else in Newfoundland of what occurred in Mitchell’s Brook two years ago have been lessened. Not eliminated, but lessened.

Don Dunphy paid an incredible price, a preventable price, for finally having an influence on a system he found so flawed, unresponsive and disheartening.

 

Bob Wakeham has spent more than 40 years as a journalist in Newfoundland and Labrador. He can be reached by email at bwakeham@nl.rogers.com

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