By Sally Barnes
The Ontario Provincial Police Commissioner is “outraged” that a 28-year-old member of his force was “essentially ambushed” and shot dead by a man who had a lifetime ban from possessing firearms and at the time of the shooting was out on bail facing 12 assault and firearm-related offences.
There are indications the accused killer disregarded most if not all of his bail conditions and there is no explanation for why police had failed to carry out a warrant for his arrest issued last August.
Like the OPP Commissioner, the rest of us should be outraged and demand full disclosure in this case and a hard look at the bail system.
Many have already lost confidence in and respect for several of our democratic institutions and are embracing the political opportunists who are all too eager to take advantage of public discontent.
The murder of Constable “Greg” Pierzchala on Dec. 27 surely cries out for a review of our judicial system and its role in our rising crime rate and threats to public safety.
So many questions…so little time.
How can the bail process for violent repeat offenders and firearm crimes be reformed to become more effective?
How can we ensure enforcement of the strict conditions under which bails are granted? Many say they aren’t worth the paper they’re written on.
Are a shortage of electronic equipment and law enforcement personnel responsible for failure to enforce bail conditions and arrest violators?
Are judges too lenient in granting bail and failing to take adequate account of public safety?
Is it time to examine the impact of the so-called Gladue sentencing principle that provides aboriginal offenders with consideration of issues that may have contributed to their being in the criminal justice system—such as poverty, racism, intergenerational trauma, lack of opportunity, etc? It provides indigenous offenders a much-needed break but is anyone monitoring decisions and outcomes?
If Gladue is seen as a method of keeping indigenous people out of jail—surely a worthy goal–there are dozens of better ways to do so if society was so inclined and willing to pay the price. While the principle may be right, maybe it’s some judges who are getting its application wrong when major crimes are in question.
The judge who granted Randall McKenzie’s bail—one of the two people charged in the officer’s murder—referenced the principle in his judgment this way:
“The accused is Indigenous, and it is a well-known fact that such individuals are over represented in our prison system especially in pre-trial custody because of their challenges with poverty, lack of education and addiction issues. All of these factors are present in this case. I am confident the public would conclude that the current strict plan of house arrest supervised by the accused(‘s) mother with independent monitoring and counselling is a reasonable restraint on the accused’s liberty until trial.”
An independent inquiry might disagree with the judge’s conclusion—especially since reports indicate his “strict plan” of conditions for Mckenzie’s bail was largely disregarded and unenforced.
It concerns me that the usual media, commentators and activists who demand inquiries, commissions, full disclosure and change after tragedies like the Constable Pierzchala murder remain somewhat subdued in this case.
When Randall McKenzie,25, and his girlfriend Brandi Crystal Lyn Stewart-Sperry,30, were charged with murdering the young police officer, initial reports based on material presented at a 2021 parole hearing for McKenzie painted him as the victim of a troubled childhood living in a First Nations community.
The accused was quoted as suggesting he had an adopted grandfather who may have attended a residential school, an apparent reference to the intergenerational trauma caused by the residential school system.
The parole report said he is from the Onondaga First Nations of the Six Nations of the Grand River Territory and he was then serving a nearly three-year sentence for robbing a restaurant at gunpoint and stealing a vehicle.
Recent media coverage of the murder of Constable Pierzchala said McKenzie was from Kingston but I have seen no effort to follow up on what kind of a connection he had with this community.
Virtually nothing is known or said about his co-accused, Stewart-Sperry, except that she is from Hamilton.
What background has emerged on the pair is limited and I can’t help but conclude that racism is the elephant in the room.
I sense an apparent reluctance of media and commentators to identify the accused Mckenzie as indigenous. To publicly question how the Gladue principle was a factor in his release is certainly a red flag that many will avoid for fear of being labelled racist in these days of social media vitriol.
Any probe into this case will have to deal with the issue of why McKenzie was granted bail given his record and the seriousness of charges against him, including possession of a handgun. The presiding crown attorney in the case recommended that bail be denied for fear of the accused re-offending.
McKenzie was denied bail at a hearing in December 2021 but on a re-hearing last June, with a different judge presiding, the bail was granted under conditions such as wearing a GPS ankle monitor and very restricted conditions and movement while living with his mother (who was named his surety.)
Some wanting to see bail reform would go as far as publishing the names of judges and the reasons they give for their decisions on granting bail. Politicians and others in important decision-making positions are made accountable so why not judges who traditionally do not appear before the media or public to explain themselves?
There are few who would suggest the judicial process can be perfect. Those involved in the making, regulating, and enforcing of our laws would be the first to point out the cracks and failings.
A wise old lawyer I knew who loved the law but acknowledged its shortcomings used to say this: “The doors of justice are open to all—just like the doors of the Royal York Hotel.”
To maintain faith in and respect for our judicial process in this country and the belief that fairness and justice prevail, the public must be assured that a slain police officer and his family deserve justice as much as his accused slayer.
There is no greater responsibility for our governments and governors than ensuring the safety of the people they serve.
Accused police killer Randall McKenzie’s family issued a statement expressing their condolences to the family of the dead OPP constable.
“We wish them healing and peace,” said the statement.
The rest of us should wish the Pierzchala family justice as well.
Sensible and effective reform of our bail laws and ensuring their enforcement would be a place to start and hopefully spare other families the terrible loss and grief caused by this evil crime.
Sally Barnes has enjoyed a distinguished career as a writer, journalist and author. Her work has been recognized in a number of ways, including receiving a Southam Fellowship in Journalism at Massey College at the University of Toronto. A self-confessed political junkie, she has worked in the back-rooms for several Ontario premiers. In addition to a number of other community contributions, Sally Barnes served a term as president of the Ontario Council on the Status of Women. She is a former business colleague of Doppler’s publisher, Hugh Mackenzie, and lives in Kingston, Ontario. You can find her online at sallybarnesauthor.com.
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