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  • Volume Eight, Number Seven: October 2003

    It does matter we find responsibility for Hyatt-riot:

    Settlement a model for better police community relations?

    Sid Chow Tan

    The first independent look at the so-called "Riot at the Hyatt" recently concluded when this writer, as self-represented plaintiff, accepted a settlement in a civil lawsuit alleging unlawful assault and unreasonable force by members of the bicycle and street squads of the Vancouver Police Department.

    The settlement came on September 24, over four and a half years since the incident. It involved no money; costs were waived and required no confidentiality clauses. Several days earlier, three other civil suits that involved the police crowd control unit were settled.  

    In Tan versus City of Vancouver the burden of proof was on the plaintiff. The caliber of public servants involved in this case–from the judge and court reporter to the City of Vancouver lawyers and the police officer who struck the plaintiff--is an indicator that some of our tax dollars are well spent.

    The witnesses for the plaintiff (that’s me) took the duty as citizens seriously and paid their expenses to come and testify. There were also good people among the plaintiff's supporters, including some in the media. All saw a trial unfold that should be studied by legal scholars and students.

    I have no legal training. Justice M. M. Koenigsberg of the BC Supreme Court suggested a "mini-trial" for an evaluation of the testimony and videotapes within the formal proceedings. All sides would be heard off the record and not under oath. The city, represented by Bruce Quayle and Karen Liang, agreed.

    My case involved the testimony of three witnesses: Brian Peterson, Bryce Gilroy-Scott and Ian Marcuse. The defense had finished cross-examining them. Peterson, pop-culture columnist for the weekly Westender magazine, gave testimony about the mood and circumstances when the crowd control unit advanced.

    Gilroy-Scott, a student who returned for the trial from El Salvador where he is doing economic development work, gave testimony about being allegedly struck on the head in the street by the crowd control unit.

    Marcuse, then a mental health worker, formerly a plaintiff in the action and currently a full-time graduate student, gave testimony on alleged injuries he received while sitting beside me.

    Daniel O'Donavan, police bicycle squad member on duty that night, testified he struck me as instructed in a "continuum of force" procedure to make an arrest of someone in the police security zone. If nothing else, protestors, the police and the public should spend more time discussing the use of force and security zones. There was not even a megaphone on hand that night.

    In the evaluation of the "mini-trial" testimony, Justice Koenigsberg said the case was not proven on its legal merits. Constable O'Donovan had the duty to remove me because the secure line as shown on the videotape, several feet behind me, had been breached, and under those circumstances lawful and necessary force was used.

    But Koenigsberg also said the suit was not frivolous or a waste of the court's time and raised important issues of when and how police should use force. Because there was no intent to breach the line, I would be found not guilty in a criminal trial because there is no intent.

    This action demonstrates a citizen can get a day in court if prepared to risk financial jeopardy. Prior to the court date, my lawyer, Iven Tse, was confronted with an eight-week trial that included the three actions against the police crowd control unit. Due to time and resources commitments, Tse said he could not do the trial pro bono and asked to be dismissed.

    In the end, it was a three day session, a wise and creative judge, a self-representing citizen without legal training and two accommodating city lawyers with a police officer: good people who are unable to explain why there was so much violence that December 8, 1998 evening at the Hyatt when the prime minister was there.

    The explanation for the alleged assault in Tan versus City of Vancouver satisfies legally. The explanation for why the crowd control unit needed to be unleashed is still wanting. The judge, who admitted taking a hit on the head during a Vietnam anti-war protest years back, says the explanation is better sought in the political realm.

    This trial showed the need for timely disclosure by the police of relevant information, preferably in an environment of co-operation and dialogue. Until now, it seems the police were more concerned about admitting liability than serving the public the truth. Citizens should rightly hope all learn and not repeat the mistakes that saw so many get hurt. Some good may still come from the prime minister's visit to Vancouver that evening.

    Sid Chow Tan is a Freelance journalist and regular contributor to the Columbia Journal. He is also a community television advocate active with the Independent Community Television cooperative.

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