City councillor ponders suit against police

Annette Phillips
The Kingston Whig-Standard

Kingston police officers have been ordered to conduct more thorough investigations after a city councillor accused the department of wrongfully laying an assault charge against him.

Councillor George Stoparczyk said yesterday he isn't ruling out legal or civil action against the police department and its civilian watchdog, the Police Services Board, after the charge was thrown out by a court.

"I am not satisfied with the Police Services Board investigation," Stoparczyk told The Whig-Standard.

"At the moment, I don't have any other options, so I probably won't pursue this, but if some other options come to light ... I'm not closing the door."

Last month, a judge dismissed an assault charge police laid against Stoparczyk in June 2000.

The councillor was serving an eviction notice on a female tenant of a building owned by a friend of his when the woman became upset. She later filed a complaint with police, alleging bruises on her arm were caused during a physical altercation with Stoparczyk.

The woman was bruised and bandaged when Stoparczyk arrived at her home. The councillor said there was no physical contact between them.

Police laid charges the following day without taking Stoparczyk's statement and without talking to witnesses.

One of the witnesses was Stoparczyk's wife, who watched the encounter from a car parked across the street.

"They didn't even ask me where I was that day," he said.

After being fingerprinted and photographed, Stoparczyk said he had to demand the right to give a statement to the officer who laid the charge.

Police, he said, weren't interested in his side of the story at all.

Stoparczyk launched a formal complaint with the police department.

"My initial hope was that the police would drop the charges because of the way the investigation was carried out," Stoparczyk said.

But Crown prosecutors refused to drop the charge and Stoparczyk went to trial.

Even the Crown admitted to gaps and inconsistencies in the complainant's testimony. The judge dismissed the charges against Stoparczyk in minutes, without deliberation.

In an official response to Stoparczyk's complaint, Staff Sgt. Paul Tohill said the investigation - which involved talking to the complainant and her son - complied with provincial and local standards. However, as a result of the complaint, Police Chief Bill Closs also issued an order "emphasizing that all officers must conduct unbiased investigations and to listen to both sides involved in a dispute," Tohill wrote.

Stoparczyk said he was surprised such a rule didn't exist already.

He said police told him that a policy requiring officers to listen to both sides of the story is extremely rare and probably unique in Canada.

"I don't know that a policy should be necessary because this is common sense," Stoparczyk said.

"It's what you do. You talk to both parties."

Stoparczyk said he was pleased with the chief's new policy but wanted to be sure there would be supervision to ensure the new policy is followed.

So he launched a subsequent complaint with the Police Services Board.

The board's response was issued last week. It quotes the Criminal Code, which allows an officer to arrest any person without a warrant when the officer believes that person has committed or will commit an offence.

There are sometimes conflicts between the Criminal Code and the police department's vision statement, which encourages balanced compassion, board chairman Jim Clark said yesterday.

That's what happened in the Stoparczyk case, he said.

But "when all is said and done, the Criminal Code of Canada takes priority."

The patrol officer believed he had reasonable grounds to charge Stoparczyk, Clark said.

In addition, the Crown attorney felt the issue of intent - whether or not Stoparczyk meant to harm the complainant - should be settled in court.

Talking to both parties isn't always possible, but the Police Services Board will encourage the chief to ensure the new policy is followed, Clark said.

"Hopefully these kinds of situations won't happen again."

For the Stoparczyk family, it's been a year and a half of embarrassment, expense - lawyers' fees came to almost $3,000 - and fear.

"In a way, I had no great worries about winning the case, but in the back of my mind it was always a possibility," Stoparczyk said.

"Given different circumstances and a different verdict, I could have lost my real estate licence and my seat on council. That was certainly in my mind for one-and-a-half years."

Ultimately, the trial accomplished little beyond spending tax dollars on police time, lawyers' fees and court costs, Stoparczyk said, calling the waste of money "regrettable."

Stoparczyk said he could have taken a plea bargain and accepted a suspended sentence, but refused to do so.

"There is no way I would plead guilty to something I didn't do," he said.

While police accept no blame for a lax investigation, Stoparczyk feels the chief's order is acknowledgement that a more comprehensive search for facts is required.

"The police force should be aware of the kind of damage they can cause by laying charges without doing a complete and unbiased investigation," he said.

"If I accomplished just that ... that will be a victory for me."