Frank Paul Inquiry continues to reveal ugly side of VPD

By Morgan O’Neal

Ten years ago Frank Paul was just another aboriginal regular at the downtown drunk tank, unique only in that he was a Mi’qmac from the Big Cove First Nation in New Brunswick as far away from home as he could get without leaving the country altogether. He was deep in his cups and long out of work by the time he died on a frigid November night in 1998 and he had been in and out of that same tank on a regular enough basis to have become well-known to officers working the dreary Eastside beat. Paul was among many people helped by Barry Conroy who at the time worked with Saferide, a program run by the Vancouver Recovery Club that transports people suffering from the effects of alcohol and drugs to detox centres and shelters. He testified to Paul’s personality before the present public inquiry on November 16. “He was what I would call a gentleman,” Conroy said of the Mi’kmaq man. Paul, according to Conroy, was “polite,” and though he was usually drunk on rice wine, there was “dignity” in the way he struggled to raise himself from the pavement to get into the Saferide van.

In the past decade the Vancouver police (not to mention the RCMP) have been the focus of much public outrage for an abnormal number of botched investigations, brutal racist arrest tactics, and false and dishonest statements for which officers at the highest level of crisis management in the Force have arrogantly refused to take responsibility. The tragic case of Frank Paul is only one very blatant example of the systematic almost psychotic culture of denial under which the VPD operates. Originally, the police told Paul’s family that he had died in a car accident. Others were told he was killed by a hit-and-run driver. “So we never asked anything more,” Paul’s cousin Pauline Simon said, four years after Frank died. “That’s been the belief for years.” But many local observers were suspicious from the beginning and the word on the street was always closer to the facts. Frank Paul had died either in custody or left in an alley to breathe his last by one of Vancouver’s Finest. The “internal” investigation that followed upon the death of Paul resulted in a two-day suspension for seasoned Sergeant, Russell Sanderson, and one day for rookie Constable, David Instant. Police Complaint Commissioner Don Morrison shrugged off queries from the Paul family and others interested in justice and truth. The police never retracted their tall tale, nor have they apologized for the lies and fabrications designed to cover their butts.

Unfortunately, the recent inquiry into Frank Paul’s death will not find fault with the Force but only make recommendations on changes to policies and procedures. Crown lawyers who reviewed the case in June 2004 determined charges unwarranted. Two officers were “disciplined” and the department considered the case closed. But a corrections officer working the night Paul died claimed the internal police investigation was a sham, and took his concerns?to the new Police Complaints Commissioner, Dirk Ryneveld, who recommended a public inquiry into Paul’s death. This recommendation was at first rejected by the provincial government but that decision was reversed last February after CBC News reported on the corrections officer’s claim. Finally, after nearly a decade of cover-up and denial the long awaited inquiry began and one weak apology emerged from Constable Instant for the brutal neglect of Citizen Paul. The truth, long suspected, was that he had been dumped from a paddy wagon into a dank and dark alley and left to die on a near-freezing winter night. It took nine years and a subpoena to get Instant to speak at all; the truth only now escaped his lips when he owned up to his part in this thoughtless killing.

Perhaps he has learned from his mistakes. He was a rookie then and working in the worst part of town, given a task beyond his adolescent mind. He had no experience with this type of situation and should not have been left alone to deal with it. We can only wonder. what has been going on in his head for the past decade; serious soul-searching, remorse and guilt would seem the only thoughts appropriate. The same cannot be hoped of former Sgt. Sanderson. He has no excuses and offers no apologies. The man in charge, who just refused to let the wasted 47-year-old Paul sleep it off in a heated cell, ordered Constable Instant, fresh from boot camp, to yard the motionless, supine man stinking of rice wine and urine the hell out of his jail. The oblivious Sanderson swears to this day that Paul wasn’t drunk: some disability must have made it difficult for him to stand. He saw no reason to seek medical aid despite the fact that the homeless man was comatose. The better to distance himself from responsibility for Paul’s death, Sanderson, protesting that he wasn’t liable for what happened, testified that he had “meant” to tell Instant to drive Paul to a safe place, but didn’t say it then. There was no need to apologize to his family.

This is incredulous testimony from a seasoned officer whose version of events contrasts with colleagues and the pathologist who found that Paul died of hypothermia from acute intoxication. An autopsy confirmed Paul had a blood alcohol level of .35 — more than four times the legal level of drunkenness. But that’s just part of the tragedy. A former VPD wagon driver told the inquiry that when a senior officer gives an order, the junior officer is expected to obey. Retired Constable Brian Porter agreed that the officer who dropped Frank Paul off nine years ago would have had to follow orders. This deflects responsibility toward Sergeant Sanderson, bur it was a tearful Constable David Instant that apologized to Mr. Paul’s family, saying simply that his superior had said “the man wasn’t drunk”. During his last day of testimony, Instant tearfully apologized for leaving Paul in the alley, saying he’ll wear the scars of what happened to the man for the rest of his life.

On the night of December 5, 1998, Instant drove the chronic alcoholic into the same Vancouver alley where he was found frozen to death only hours later. Porter testified he had picked Paul up the day before and dropped him at the detox centre where he was admitted. Steven Kelliher, the lawyer for Paul’s family, asked what a driver’s options would be if ordered to “breach” someone in custody: breaching is a now-banned practice where officers would take someone from one part of the city and move them to another. “It’s very difficult,” Porter testified. “If he’s been given an order per se, then being that junior, I don’t think he would have much option but to obey.”

In testimony which was clearly contradicted by Constable Instant, Sergeant Sanderson denied knowing Paul was homeless. “I advised Sgt. Sanderson he [Paul] was found laying on a vegetable rack at Dunlevy [Avenue] and Hastings [Street] and Sgt. Sanderson said,?‘He’s homeless that’s where he sleeps,’” Instant said. Sanderson insisted his only mistake was in giving “vague” instructions to Instant to drive Paul to “Broadway and Maple,” where Sanderson said he believed Paul might take shelter in a “basement apartment.” Lawyer Cameron Ward, representing the United Native Nations Society told the Georgia Straight that the postmortem examination didn’t indicate the time of Paul’s death.”It’s a question of fact whether or not he was alive either when he was dragged out of the jail into the wagon or when he was taken out of the wagon and put where he was found deceased,” Ward said.

The police video clearly shows a “motionless” Paul being dragged into the jail elevator at 8:25 p.m. His condition was seen by a number of individuals, including the sergeant on duty, who determined that Paul was not intoxicated. Five minutes later, at 8:30 p.m., a police wagon driver and a provincial jail guard dragged “a still rain-soaked, motionless Frank Paul from the elevator to the police wagon along the floor of the wagon bay area”. The wagon driver delivered another intoxicated person in the wagon to a detoxification centre before placing Paul in a nearby alley. His lifeless body was found at 2:41 a.m. on December 6, 1998, at that same location.

Asked by Ward if he would have got medical help for a Caucasian instead of “an intoxicated, chronically alcoholic native man,” Russell Sanderson replied: “Anybody in a suit would get medically assessed,” Sanderson said. Instead, the comatose Paul was dragged like deadweight across the floor and back to the police wagon, soaking wet and dead drunk. Sanderson insisted that he was right to reject Paul, despite the report of world-renowned pathologist Dr. Rex Ferris, who found Paul died of acute alcohol intoxication and hypothermia. Ferris has also said Paul likely was hypothermic when Sanderson assessed him in the jail elevator. Sanderson vigorously denied a suggestion by Paul family lawyer Kelliher that ”Frank Paul was completely intoxicated and incapable of caring for himself, you didn’t want him in your jail and he couldn’t continue to use your jail as a hotel room.”

The truth is out, the facts are clear. A homeless alcoholic dumped in an alley would have been hypothermic before he died, according to the forensic pathologist who examined Paul’s body. Dr. Laurel Gray told the inquiry that hypothermia results because alcohol leads to rapid heat loss. The condition would have been accelerated because Paul was left out in the cold in soaking-wet clothes. Environment Canada records temperatures of 2 C that night. “He just basically lost a lot more heat than his body could generate,” Gray testified. “The conclusion that he died of hypothermia would be a valid one. We’re only looking at just a few degrees below the normal body-core temperature to become fatal, that the organs just can’t maintain life”. Gray said her examination revealed no irreversible damage to Paul’s liver, nor did he have cirrhosis. However, in the final stages of hypothermia, his brain, lungs, heart and kidneys would all have failed.

In his original report, Dirk Ryneveld noted that in choosing not to call for an inquest, the coroners service had relied on information provided by police “in what I now deem to have been an incomplete and therefore flawed investigation”. Two vital pieces of information were missing, one of which was a report made by pathologist Rex Ferris “that, among other things, indicates that Frank Paul may well have died in the police wagon itself”. Ryneveld noted that even if Paul was technically no longer in police custody when he died, “in my respectful view, the coroner still had a residual discretion to hold a coroner’s inquest pursuant to Section 18 of the Coroners Act.” Dana Urban, a former senior legal adviser to former commissioner Don Morrison, long ago suggested that “it is likely that his [Paul’s] fatal hypothermia developed over the course of many hours, and there seems no doubt that he was suffering from hypothermia when he was removed from the jail”. Urban said in his testimony: “He [Paul] died during or soon after his involvement with the Vancouver city police department.”

First Nations groups have blamed the B.C. government for not calling an inquiry into Paul’s death earlier. A decade has passed since they and the B.C. Civil Liberties Association began pushing for a public examination of this crime. Aboriginal leaders are hardly satisfied with the “apology” and feel Instant should have been charged. They also believe racism played a part in how Paul was treated. Clearly Sanderson bears the bulk of responsibility, yet admits no remorse even in his plump retirement. First Nations activist and organizer for the Indigenous Action Movement, Kat Norris told the Georgia Straight in an interview that the inquiry gave substance to persistent suspicions that there had been a cover-up. Norris pointed out that if police had reported that Paul had died while he was in police custody, the Coroners Service of B.C. would have had no recourse but to order an immediate inquest, a mandatory court proceeding with a jury that never took place in this case. Former RCMP officer, Vancouver mayor, and now Senator, Larry Campbell was chief coroner at that time. Norris noted that all that is known is that Paul died of hypothermia. “It’s important to know why they want to cover it up so badly. That changes things. It’s important for true justice to Frank and for anyone else who has died under suspicious circumstances while in police custody.

Sergeant Russell Sanderson refused to admit Paul, when Constable Instant brought him in, saying he’d been there only a few hours earlier and could not have had time to get drunk yet again. Sanderson ordered Instant to drive Paul to an intersection on the west side of Vancouver. But not knowing exactly where to leave Paul, Instant took him to an alley behind the detox centre on the east side after another senior cop told him that was the best place for the homeless man. Instant testified he propped Paul up against a wall and left, thinking he would soon get up and be on his way, perhaps finding shelter at one of two fast-food restaurants in the area. About six hours later, Paul was found dead on his back on a pile of gravel, some distance from the wall. A paramedic who arrived at the scene told the inquiry that the gravel underneath Paul’s body had shifted “like a snow angel” indicating he may have had a seizure before he died. Or he may have experienced an effect called “hide and die syndrome” (terminal burrowing behavior). People dying of hypothermia, according to Dr. Gray, “sometimes try to hide and may also attempt to remove some of their clothing because they feel hot.” A photo entered as an exhibit at the inquiry shows Frank Paul was found with his sweatshirt pulled up to his chest and his shoes off.