In the Canadian context families of people killed by police can rarely, if ever, expect that the officers involved will be held to account in any way through criminal proceedings. This is not surprising given the state’s inclination to protect its own who kill in upholding the state. Often times the only way that victims’ families can gain a sense of some accountability is through the pursuit of civil suits. The killing of Donald Dunphy (58) by officer Joseph Smyth in Newfoundland shows clearly the state protecting the state in the case of a killer cop. Once again family, in this case Dunphy’s daughter Meghan, have had to file a civil suit against the officer, the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary (RNC), and the province.
Donald Dunphy was an injured worker who, like many injured workers in jurisdictions across Canada, was frustrated with a process that often ignores or downplayed workers’ concerns or needs and seems more inclined to protect capital or negligent businesses. Dunphy, like many dealing with recalcitrant bureaucratic institutions with few resources for legal sup[port or advocacy, took to social media, especially Twitter, to air criticisms of the workers’ compensation system. Dunphy’s friends and family members note that while angry he was not violent. He was never known to use guns.
The statement of claim filed by Meghan Dunphy states: “The death of Donald Dunphy was caused by the wrongful act or neglect of Joseph Smyth” (quoted in Bailey 2017). The lawsuit also names as defendants Smyth’s force, the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary, and the Newfoundland and Labrador government for its responsibility in overseeing the force.
Royal Newfoundland Constabulary Constable Joe Smyth was a member of then-premier Paul Davis’s security team on April 5, 2015, when he made an unannounced visit to Dunphy’s home in Mitchell’s Brook, Newfoundland. Smyth made the drive 80 kilometres southwest of St. John’s apparently because of a social media post that the premier’s staff had flagged as being “of concern” (quoted in Bailey 2017). During the visit Smyth would shoot Dunphy twice in the head and once in his left chest. He claimed the man raised a gun and police say a .22 caliber rifle owned by Dunphy’s father was found at his feet. No fingerprints of Dunphy could be found on the gun. Police accounts have not been independently verified.
The reason given for the visit, targeting a civilian because of some tweets on Twitter, should raise serious questions about the role of police as political agents defending politicians against mere statements of dissent and punishing political critics for simple expression of opposition. Constable Smyth was never charged for his unannounced political visit and apparent attempt at intimidation nor for his killing of Donald Dunphy.
A public commission of inquiry into the killing raised more concerns. Constable Smyth first testified at the inquiry over the course of three days in January. He was recalled in March when text messages discovered after his initial appearance appeared clearly to contradict his sworn testimony. Smyth had initially testified that he never considered Dunphy a threat and never received advice on his notes regarding the shooting. Yet in later retrieved BlackBerry messages, Smyth told an unidentified friend the day before the killing of Dunphy that he had to deal with a “lunatic” who was “threatening the premier” (quoted in 2017). Smyth tried to explain the deletions prior to the inquiry by stating that he deleted direct text messages habitually to clear space on his phone (Bailey 2017). He also claimed that he did not mean the term “lunatic” in a derogatory way, because who, really would take it as such. He said he was simply referring to social media comments that he viewed as ranting (Bailey 2017).
Smyth also claimed during his second inquiry appearance that he had no recollection of numerous text exchanges the day following the shooting with RNC Sergeant Tim Buckle about notes Smyth would take to his RCMP interview that afternoon (Bailey 2017). This for someone overly focused on electronic messaging.
Newfoundland has no special unit to investigate incidents of harm by police to civilians so, incredibly, the investigation into Smyth’s killing of Donald Dunphy was carried out by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP). This despite the fact that Meghan Dunphy raised issues of fairness and transparency and requested that an outside agency be used. Stunningly RCMP investigators even told the inquiry that they “inappropriately shared evidence with Smyth” or “were more casual with him” (Bailey 2017), They stood by their findings and, dubiously, so too did the inquiry.
The inquiry into Dunphy’s killing, led by provincial Court of Appeal judge Leo Barry, took place over two months beginning in January 2017 and heard from more than 50 witnesses. As is the case with such inquiries, the Dunphy inquiry could not make findings of criminal or civil responsibility. Judge Barry is scheduled to provide his report and any recommendations by July 1.
Bailey, Sue. 2017. “Daughter of Man Shot Dead by Newfoundland Police Sues Officer, Force, Province.” CTV News. April 5. http://www.ctvnews.ca/canada/daughter-of-man-shot-dead-by-newfoundland-police-sues-officer-force-province-1.3355744