Accountability needed after Zameer acquittal

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Ontario Premier Doug Ford, then-Toronto mayor John Tory and Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown attacked the decision to grant bail to Umar Zameer back in 2021. Three years later, he’s been found not guilty.

By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on April 29, 2024.

OTTAWA—Toronto Police Chief Myron Demkiw should be fired.

There is no way anyone can have confidence in his impartiality after he told the world last week that he had hoped for a different outcome when Umar Zameer was found not guilty of all charges in a high-profile case involving the death of a Toronto police officer in 2021.

In her instructions to the jury before the not-guilty decision, Justice Anne Molloy said “the defence theory of what happened is consistent with the testimony of Umar Zameer, Aaida Shaikh, the Crown’s reconstruction expert, the defence reconstruction expert and the video. There is no evidence that fully supports the Crown’s theory.”

With such overwhelming unanimity on the reconstruction of the incident, one wonders how the case ever made it to trial?

Some are asking whether there was political pressure brought to bear, as three key politicians—including Ontario Premier Doug Ford, and then-Toronto mayor John Tory and Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown—weighed in to attack the decision to grant bail to Zameer back in 2021.

Ford minced no words in his tweet: “This is beyond comprehension. It’s completely unacceptable that the person charged for this heinous crime is now out on bail. Our justice system needs to get its act together and start putting victims and their families ahead of criminals.”

Demkiw refused to condemn comments by his predecessor who placed the “cop killer” label on Zameer, claiming it was not his job to criticize a former chief. However, the chief quickly walked back his own attack on the verdict after it prompted a firestorm of criticism from members of the legal profession.

Daniel Brown, past president of the Criminal Lawyers Association, told The Toronto Star that “the one thing that a chief of police isn’t supposed to say is that you were hoping for a verdict that didn’t conform with the evidence.”

Demkiw told the media at a mid-week press conference on an unrelated matter that he respected the decision of the jury. But Brown challenged that assertion. “You can’t say that you respect that jury’s decision, but that they also got it wrong.”

The judge also said that the jury should consider whether there had been collusion in the matching testimony of three police officers, though also noted that the officers had denied it. She also offered her “deepest sympathies” to Zameer following his acquittal, an apology seldom seen from the bench.

As for Zameer, he stuck to his story that he and his family were returning from a Canada Day celebration when four people starting banging on his car doors, ordering him to disembark. Zameer thought they were criminals trying to rob him, and he tried to drive away, resulting in the death of one officer who was allegedly holding on to the vehicle.

The accountant spent almost three years waiting for the outcome, and racked up legal bills in excess of $200,000, forcing his family to sell properties to pay for his defence.

Such was the public support for the defendant that within a few days, a GoFundMe page set up for his legal expenses had received $267,347 from more than 3,400 donors.

The police have already announced an external review of their actions by the Ontario Provincial Police. That review is automatic when any judicial decision involves criticism of police sworn testimony. But no review of the Crown’s decision to take this case to court, based on what we now know was flimsy or non-existent evidence, has been initiated.

Thousands of police officers attended the funeral of Constable Jeffrey Northrup, who was tragically killed in the incident. And with the public comments by high-profile politicians attacking the bail decision, one wonders whether there was political pressure exerted on the Crown to prosecute.

Demkiw has clearly shown that his interest is in protecting the actions of his police officers. That may work with the police, but it certainly undermines public confidence in the force. His statements reinforce the viewpoint of opponents who have been regularly lobbying to defund the police.

Without an external review of the judicial process in this case, too many questions remain unanswered.

Why did this case ever go to trial in the first place? Was there political pressure to lay charges, and why was the first-degree murder charge introduced, based on what did not appear to be a premeditated incident?

When a police officer dies, a first-degree murder charge is automatic. Maybe that rule also needs to be revisited.

The good news—in spite of all the questions surrounding the validity of the charges—is that justice was done.

Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.