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Trusted image of Canadian police takes hit

The harsh image of Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers raiding a reporter's home and confiscating her files on a criminal warrant to investigate leaks last week roiled this country, which is proud of its heritage as a global proponent of human rights and civil liberties.

But it was just the latest example of public discomfort over a series of recent episodes around Canada in which the police have been accused of abusive practices or corruption. Police officers have been accused of stealing jewelry and drugs and of rigging evidence to put suspects behind bars in Toronto, of dumping intoxicated Canadian Indians on isolated snowy roads to freeze to death in the prairies and of abusing drug addicts in Vancouver.

Most Canadian police officers appear to be as polite as the population at large. But the arrest two weeks ago of six Toronto narcotics squad officers on a variety of brutality and corruption charges, and newly released internal police documents indicating many more might be implicated in a broad scandal, have shocked prosecutors and local criminal lawyers.

"Each and every day in some courtroom in Toronto, some police officer gives perjured testimony, in my opinion, based on over a decade of experience," said Edward Sapiano, a criminal lawyer whose database of accusations against Toronto officers spurred an official investigation into a city narcotics squad. "Every city in the country has examples of police corruption."

The Toronto scandal has followed a pattern that has emerged in New York and other American cities in recent years in which officers were thought to have succumbed to the temptations of the huge amounts of money involved in the drug trade, while internal department investigative units did not have the resources to monitor them.

Just as the Mollen Commission found in New York City in the mid 1990s, the Toronto investigation is showing a pattern that the same officers accused of beating suspects for information were also likely to be accused of producing tainted evidence and stealing narcotics.

An affidavit released by a Royal Canadian Mounted Police task force investigating the narcotics squad, which has existed since 1995, included a report that a narcotics dealer passed a lie detector test in which he reported that several officers had stolen the equivalent of $50,000 in jewelry and cash when they raided his home. In another, three officers were reported to have stolen $70,000 from a safe deposit box using a fake search warrant.

Canada is policed by a web of local and provincial police forces and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, a national agency with a longtime international reputation for efficiency. That image was bruised last week when officers raided the home and office of an Ottawa Citizen reporter, Juliet O'Neill, who obtained secret documents about a Canadian citizen arrested as a suspected terrorist from al-Qaida in the United States and expelled to Syria.

Prime Minister Paul Martin was stunned by the raids, which were intended to find the source of the leaked secret documents, and he called for a review of the law protecting government secrets that was the basis for the search warrants. But O'Neill's computer files and other personal documents have not been returned to her, and newspaper editorials and opposition politicians are questioning whether civilian control of the police is adequate.

"It is starting to look as if the RCMP is out of control," the Toronto Star said Friday in an editorial. "It needs its political masters to call it to account for its outrageous actions."

Such commentary is rare in a country in which the brave Mountie on horseback in his smart red uniform is one of the primary national icons.

"While brutality and fabricating evidence is fairly widespread," said Jean-Paul Brodeur, a criminologist at the University of Montreal, "we really don't want to look too closely into police corruption because corruption is kind of a Canadian taboo."

But that attitude is being tested.

A much-publicized, continuing official investigation into the 1990 death of Neil Stonechild, a Canadian Indian teenager who was found frozen on the outskirts of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, has found the Saskatoon police have followed a practice of picking up drunken Indian men from the street and abandoning them in the snow. One of Stonechild's friends said he saw him shortly before his death in a police car, handcuffed and screaming.

Over the past decade or so, at least four Indian men have been found frozen to death in the snow around Saskatoon. One Cree man spoke out recently, saying the Saskatoon police left him in the snow in January 2000, and he said that after he made the accusation, he began receiving anonymous death threats.

Human Rights Watch, an international human rights group in New York, issued a report last May documenting cases of police abuse in Vancouver against drug addicts, including beatings, illegal searches and arbitrary arrests. But Mayor Larry Campbell disputed the conclusions.