Local cop hero abroad, outcast at home
Blood-spatter expert faces discipline for defence testimony
Charles Rusnell, The Edmonton Journal
July 16, 2007
EDMONTON - Rory Christie is certain that if it were not for Edmonton police Const. Joe Slemko, he would still be languishing in an Australian jail.
Slemko, a world-recognized expert in blood-spatter analysis, provided evidence Christie says was instrumental in winning his freedom after spending 3 1/2 years in an Australian prison, wrongfully accused of his former wife's murder.
To Christie, who now lives in Lloydminster, Slemko personifies what a police officer should be: a competent, scrupulously objective professional who provides unbiased evidence in court for the prosecution or defence.
Senior management at the Edmonton Police Service has a different view of Slemko.
This fall, Slemko will face his third internal disciplinary hearing. He has no doubt that, like the two previous hearings, he will be found guilty of insubordination for defying an order not to testify for the defence in criminal cases.
According to the EPS, Slemko places himself in a conflict every time he testifies for the defence.
Police must clear all outside work with the EPS, and officers are barred from any business activity that "might reasonably be expected to impair their judgment, independence or unbiased performance of police duty."
As an expert witness, Slemko is paid for his time but does not accept fees in cases where he believes a person has been wrongfully convicted.
The arbiter in his case, Supt. Dwayne Gibbs, head of EPS human resources, decided Slemko was in a conflict.
Gibbs believes the Crown and police are "indivisible" in a prosecution.
As a result, Slemko is free to testify as an independent consultant for the prosecution, but has now been told he can not even speak to a defence lawyer without prior approval of the police service.
Slemko remains defiant. "I have told EPS management numerous times that I will continue to do what I think is right because I cannot and will not contradict my values as a police officer," he said.
"I believe this 'us-versus-them' mentality is what leads to wrongful convictions. We are supposed to be unbiased seekers of truth and I think that by testifying for the defence I show that is the case."
Slemko said he's willing to suffer the consequences of his beliefs, and he has.
Besides being convicted twice of insubordination for his consulting work, he remains a constable and is no longer seeking a promotion. He was also recently informed he will not be granted his 20-year exemplary service medal, despite never having been convicted of a misconduct related to his policing duties.
Arthur Schafer is the director of the University of Manitoba's Centre for Professional and Applied Ethics. An expert in police ethics, Schafer strongly supports the stand taken by Slemko.
"His conduct is consistent with the highest standard of professional policing, and the people who are bringing charges against him are betraying their professional commitment to the justice system," he said.
"What strikes me about this situation is the dramatic misconception of the Edmonton Police Service about the role of the police and the Crown," he said.
The police service is showing its lack of understanding that the justice system doesn't involve getting convictions at all costs, an attitude that can lead to wrongful convictions, Schafer said.
Schafer was outraged by the treatment Slemko received at a recent public inquiry in Houston, B.C.
Slemko testified at the hearing at the request of the family of Ian Bush, a 22-year-old mill worker shot dead inside the northern town's RCMP detachment.
His testimony countered the police version of events.
An RCMP lawyer aggressively attacked Slemko's credibility with information that could only have obtained from an internal EPS source, Slemko said.
Schafer said that by testifying, Slemko had helped uphold the reputation of police officers at a time when the RCMP has publicly disgraced itself.
He did the same thing for the Edmonton Police Service, Schafer said. "I think this officer is being charged for his doing his duty," he said. "I think his ideals of professionalism and commitment to the justice system are being betrayed."
The Journal asked the EPS to provide a senior officer for an interview.
Instead, Staff Sgt. Greg Alcorn, the head of the service's corporate communications department, responded by
"The matter of Joe Slemko's extra employment is very complex in nature including the alleged Police Act violations which are presently under investigation. That being said, the Edmonton Police Service wants to ensure they provide clear and unambiguous direction to all (their) employees as it relates to any extra employment," he wrote.
"In response to emerging questions regarding Joe Slemko's extra employment and that of other EPS staff, the EPS has initiated a review of its current extra employment policies."
University of Alberta criminologist Bill Pitt, a former RCMP officer, is familiar with Slemko's work as a blood-spatter expert. He said the charges against him have nothing to do with the quality of his analysis.
"He has an outstanding record and is held in very high esteem around the world," Pitt said. "His mistake is that he breached the unwritten code that you never give evidence against another police officer and he has been made to pay for that by the EPS."
Pitt said that, in theory, the police are supposed to be objective and unbiased in their gathering and presentation of evidence.
But in reality, they always side with the prosecution.
"They won't like to hear that, but it's true," Pitt said. "Everyone wants to say they are unbiased, but the fact is, it is about winning. It's about supporting the prosecution. It's about getting a conviction."
Slemko's stand for objectivity, while laudable, can't succeed within the existing police culture and he will continue to be an outsider, in constant conflict with his superiors and other officers, he said.
"Joe is a standup guy but he is caught in a web of politics. Unfortunately, he is paid by the EPS, he is bound by their conditions of employment and if he doesn't like it, he should leave. With his qualifications and reputation, he would make far more as a private consultant anyway."
So why doesn't he just quit?
"I am still proud to be a police officer and I am not going to let them win," the 46-year-old Slemko said. "And I want my 25-year pension. I am not going to jeopardize my family's financial welfare just because there is risk and stress involved in standing up for what you believe is right."