WARNING: This article contains graphic content and may affect those who have experienced sexual violence or know someone affected by it.
During a highly anticipated news conference on Monday, the chief of the London Police Service and a detective with the department’s sexual assault section took questions from reporters covering the sexual assault case against five members of Canada’s 2018 world junior hockey team.
For 31 minutes and 45 seconds, they faced questions on the evidence in the case, the details of an initial investigation that was closed without charges in 2019, and the fate of remaining players who were implicated in a civil lawsuit but not charged in the criminal case.
The officers gave reporters slightly different versions of the same answer 21 times — roughly once every 90 seconds.
“I can’t disclose details of that.”
“I’m not going to comment on that.”
“I can’t provide any specifics.”
As the question-and-answer session in London, Ont., continued with many of the former and few of the latter, Chief Thai Truong acknowledged the frustration in the room.
“I appreciate that question, I really do, but I have to tell you, I cannot answer … it’s completely inappropriate for me to talk about those details at this time,” he told one reporter.
Legal and communications experts who spoke to CBC News said it is understandable that the public has developed a strong appetite for details about active police investigations — especially high-profile cases like the one involving the hockey players — but note that police in Canada err on the side of caution when it comes to releasing information to protect the integrity of the court process.
“If that means that the general public has to wait a little bit for a full airing of this, that is not perfect. But it’s far better than the alternative, which is compromising the fairness of the trial,” said David Butt, a Toronto criminal lawyer who is not connected to the case.
Police don’t want to compromise case, lawyers say
Truong addressed the media hours after lawyers for the five hockey players appeared in court on their behalf via video link on Monday. Michael McLeod, Cal Foote, Dillon Dubé and Carter Hart, who all play in the NHL, and Alex Formenton, who plays hockey in Switzerland, face charges of sexual assault. McLeod faces an additional charge of being party to an offence.
All five have denied wrongdoing and have taken leaves from their respective teams.
The charges stem from an alleged sexual assault at London’s Delta Armouries Hotel following a Hockey Canada gala in June 2018, when the players were honoured for their victory at the world junior hockey championship.
London police closed an initial investigation into the case in 2019 without charges, after a woman filed a complaint in June 2018. The case was reopened in 2022 after the public learned that Hockey Canada settled a civil lawsuit for $3.5 million — news that ignited a national scandal about the culture within one of the country’s most treasured sports institutions.
It was unsurprising, then, that reporters at the news conference questioned Truong about the criminal investigation when he spoke publicly about the case on Monday for the first time. It quickly became clear that the main purpose of the news conference was for the chief to apologize to the complainant for the delay in bringing charges, not to divulge details of the case.
Butt said police won’t answer case-related questions for “a whole host of reasons.”
In Canada, it is the prosecutor’s job — not a police officer’s — to present the evidence in a criminal case in court. If the police presented their case to the public before a trial, their comments could compromise the proceedings and open the door to an appeal down the road, he said.
Reasons for withholding comment include: evidence could be found to be inadmissible at trial; defence lawyers don’t have the opportunity to challenge what’s presented at news conferences; police could be perceived as trying to influence the outcome of a case; and witnesses could hear evidence they’re not supposed to hear ahead of a trial.
All of those things could open the door for defence lawyers to claim the trial was unfair from the start or create grounds for an appeal.
“The concern is a hundredfold more when you have a case of this high-profile nature,” said former federal Crown prosecutor Rob Dhanu, who’s now a criminal lawyer in Abbotsford, B.C.
‘Transparency’ with public essential
Josh Greenberg, a communications and media studies professor at Carleton University in Ottawa, said London police are balancing the need to say very little to protect the integrity of the investigation with saying just enough to satisfy the public’s demand for communication and accountability on a prominent case that has already ended with a public apology to the complainant.
He said communication around any widely publicized case will test the public’s trust and confidence in police — and departments have a history of keeping too much to themselves.
“There are enough examples, I think, of incidents where the police have not met that test [of communicating properly],” Greenberg said. “And so when you have such a high-profile case as we have now, the bar is going to be set even higher.”
Proper communication on a case with so much public interest means being open with the information you can share and transparent about why you can’t share the rest, he said.
“Transparency doesn’t necessarily mean that in any and all cases, you share everything that you know when you know it,” he said.
“It does mean that if there are limits to what can be shared publicly at a particular moment in time, that you are forthright and open and honest about what the reasons are … so there isn’t a perception that something is being withheld — perhaps to protect somebody’s reputation or the reputation of the police service itself, given how the initial investigation was handled.”
U.S. takes ‘Wild West approach’
The communication habits within the Canadian justice system are particularly opaque compared with those of its closest neighbour. In the United States, police and district attorneys often discuss intricate details of active investigations in the media long before a suspect faces trial.
Dhanu said American police and prosecutors tend to share much more because prosecutions can be more political south of the border, where arrests that attract media attention reflect well on sheriffs and district attorneys who are elected by the public.
“We are more cautious just as a culture, as a system of justice … rather than what we see as a Wild West approach in the United States, where you have sheriffs holding press conferences and essentially tarring and feathering someone they’ve just arrested rather than waiting for due process,” he said.
In Canada, Dhanu said, prosecutors should be concerned only with protecting the privacy of the complainant and the accused’s right to a fair trial.
“That’s the type of system you want,” he said.
“It’s completely understandable why the average citizen would want to know more about this case. There’s a huge appetite for it. But we have to keep in mind: What if it was one of us who was involved? What if it was a relative or family member?”
For anyone who has been sexually assaulted, there is support available through crisis lines and local support services via this Government of Canada website or the Ending Violence Association of Canada database. If you’re in immediate danger or fear for your safety or that of others around you, please call 911.
This article is from from cbc.ca (CBC NEWS CANADA)