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Rights + Justice

Officer Who Hit a Man with His Police Car Receives $2,000 Fine

‘It feels like a slap on the wrist,’ say advocates for Dennis Hunter.

Jen St. Denis 14 May 2024The Tyee

Jen St. Denis is a reporter with The Tyee covering civic issues. Find her on X @JenStDen.

A $2,000 speeding fine for a police officer who hit and seriously injured Dennis Hunter on East Hastings Street doesn’t reflect the seriousness of his injuries, say his advocates and friends.

“It feels like a slap on the wrist for something that will not just forever affect the rest of Dennis’s life, but also our kids,” Rhonda Simpkins, Hunter’s ex-wife, told The Tyee.

On May 3, Const. Jack Zhao pleaded guilty to careless driving and was sentenced to pay the maximum fine of $2,000.

While he was initially charged with three motor vehicle offences, the remaining two charges were stayed.

Zhao admitted he was speeding in the 30 kilometre per hour zone along East Hastings Street in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside neighbourhood when he hit Hunter a little after 3 a.m. on Sept. 20, 2022. According to a statement read out in court, Zhao was driving between 47 km/h and 55 km/h just before hitting Hunter.

The speed limit was lowered on that part of the street a decade ago after a safety campaign led by the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users, which raised the alarm about the number of pedestrians hit on that stretch. Many Downtown Eastside residents struggle with drug use and mental illness, and it’s common for pedestrians in the area to not be fully aware of their surroundings.

The lower speed limit applies on East Hastings Street for six blocks, between Jackson Avenue and Abbott Street.

Video of the collision shows Hunter standing motionless in the street for several minutes before Zhao’s police cruiser hit him, sending Hunter flying and knocking the shoes off his feet. Hunter was left with injuries to his face and eyes that are still causing vision problems today, according to Simpkins. He also had road rash, which subsequently became infected and was still causing pain in his legs and difficulties walking months after the accident.

A police car is stopped on East Hastings at night. A body lies sprawled on the road in front of the car.
Dennis Hunter was standing on East Hastings Street when a police car slammed into him, leaving him with a fractured leg and head and facial injuries. Photo submitted.

Zhao received the maximum speeding fine of $2,000 because, as a police officer, he should have obeyed the 30 km/h speed limit and Hunter’s injuries were serious, according to the prosecutor.

Another factor cited by both the prosecutor and the judge was that at the time of the collision there was a tent city located along both sides of Hastings Street, and drivers should have been driving with more care than usual because of the number of people living next to the roadway.

Zhao’s lawyer, Claire Hatcher, told the court that Zhao, now 30, had started working as a police officer just two months before he hit Hunter.

She said a driving prohibition would make it difficult for Zhao to continue to do his job. Hatcher said Zhao has worked in the Downtown Eastside since the accident.

In his ruling, the judge said the accident “could have happened to anyone” and noted that Hunter was wearing dark clothing and standing in the middle of the road, while also acknowledging that several other vehicles had managed to swerve around Hunter in the moments before the collision.

Zhao told the court that he was truly sorry and wished he could speak directly to Hunter to apologize.

“I became a police officer to help save lives and to protect the public, and the fact that my actions caused the opposite is something that will haunt me for the rest of my life,” he said.

“I know that my words right now don’t lessen the physical pain and emotional pain that Mr. Hunter has experienced, but I want him to know I’m sorry. And I wish that’s something I could have said to him in the last few years.”

Since his release from hospital, Hunter has become paranoid about the police and fearful of being robbed. There are times when Simpkins and Vince Tao, an organizer with the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users, have trouble getting in touch with him. During the sentencing hearing, the prosecutor told the judge it had not been possible to find Hunter to provide a victim impact statement.

The Tyee last spoke to Hunter on Nov. 1, when he’d dropped by to see Tao at VANDU. At that time, Hunter told The Tyee he still had problems with his vision and his legs.

“My legs keep swelling up; I’m trying to get a mobility scooter through ICBC if I can, some physical therapy,” he said.

Tao said that because of the B.C. government’s recent changes to limit personal injury court cases, Hunter has not been able to get meaningful compensation for his injuries.

Tao said there appears to have been no consequences for the behaviour of police officers who arrived shortly after Zhao hit Hunter. Health workers who had rushed to Hunter’s side said some of those officers aggressively interfered with the first aid they were trying to provide.

Pedestrian safety is still a huge problem in the Downtown Eastside, Tao said, with residents routinely getting hit and sometimes killed on the busy streets that cut through the city’s poorest neighbourhood. Data collected by the road safety group Vision Zero Vancouver shows that just 28 per cent of drivers actually follow the 30 km/h speed limit on East Hastings.

“There were many high-profile traffic [collisions] that happened on Hastings in the intervening time.... The stories stack up. We know the Downtown Eastside continues to be a hot spot for traffic violence, yet nothing is done.”  [Tyee]

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