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Commission clears prosecutors in Frank Paul case, calls for reform

The commission charged with investigating the official response to the death of Frank Paul has absolved provincial prosecutors of bias or improper conduct.

Without finding major irregularities in this particular case, the report calls for broad changes to the way in which the province investigates and prosecutes police misconduct.

But according to some civil rights advocates, the reforms recommended by the commission do not go far enough.

Frank Paul died homeless in the early hours of December 6, 1998, after being denied entry to a Vancouver Police Department drunk tank by an on-duty Sergeant. Released from custody and left in a downtown alley by a probationary constable, Paul succumbed to hypothermia due to alcohol poisoning.

In 2004, the Ministry of Attorney General announced that no criminal charges would be brought against any VPD officers in relation to Paul's death.

Compiled by Commissioner William H. Davies Q.C., the second of two official inquiries into the matter Paul affair found that “there is no basis for any suggestion that the prosecutors in the Frank Paul case conducted themselves improperly when considering whether to charge the police officers.”

But throughout the review process, Commissioner Davies “identified numerous Branch policies and practices that warrant examination and reconsideration.”

Speaking on behalf of the Commissioner at a press conference Wednesday afternoon, Geoffrey D. Cowper Q.C. asserted that “the general default in cases in which criminal charges are being assessed against police officers, should be that a special prosecutor is considered and appointed.”

A special prosecutor was not appointed in the Paul case. According to the report, the decision whether or not to charge police officers should only be “assigned to someone outside the [Criminal Justice] Branch – either a lawyer in private practice, or a lawyer or prosecutor in another province.”

According to the British Columbia Civil Liberties Union, this simply doesn't go far enough. “Prosecutors, regardless of whether they're located in British Columbia or Alberta or Saskatchewan, work on a close and almost daily basis with police officers,” says Carmen Cheung, BCCLA Counsel. “That necessarily creates an institutional conflict of interest. We don't believe it's sufficient to just send a case to a prosecutor in another province.”

As a secondary recommendation, the Davies Commission report also urges the V.P.D., the City of Vancouver, and provincial authorities to replace the drunk tank system with civilian-operated sobering and detox centres, community treatment services, and “low-barrier housing designed for the specific needs of chronic alcoholics.”

“Frank Paul did not need to die alone and cold that night,” says Cowper. “But his death will hopefully be a catalyst for major reforms to our criminal justice system and the way society deals with homeless chronic alcoholics."

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