Criminals who impersonate police officers will now face tougher sentences after a horrific assault and abduction of a Penhold teenager spurred a change to the Criminal Code.
Red Deer MP Earl Dreeshen’s private member’s bill, Bill C-444, officially became Canadian law when it received royal assent on Thursday.
With the new section, courts must now consider impersonating a police officer or a peace officer as an aggravating circumstance when imposing sentences. The change will result in longer jail time.
When a 16-year-old Penhold girl was kidnapped and sexually assaulted by a man claiming to be a police officer in 2009, the sentence for impersonating a police officer carried a six-month maximum penalty. Impersonating an officer is currently punishable up to a maximum of five years.
Gerald John Baumgarte of Red Deer, then 57, plead guilty to kidnapping, sexual assault, confinement and other charges in February 2010. He was given a six-month sentence for personating a police officer. The sentence runs concurrently to his 18-year prison term.
The family of the victim, who cannot be named due to a publicity ban, approached Dreeshen in 2010 after they were shocked to learn the maximum charge for posing as police officers.
The family did not attend the announcement on Friday in Penhold but Dreeshen read a prepared statement from the victim’s mother. She said the person who abducted her daughter would never have gotten as close to her as she did if he were not wearing an RCMP uniform.
“We wanted to make change to this law because the initial sentence for this crime was inadequate and did not reflect the seriousness of the offence,” she said. “It just goes to show an ordinary Canadian girl and her mom can change the world.”
It has been a long haul but Dreeshen said this was a day he has been waiting for since he was approached by the family.
He said the new bill shows support for the men and women in uniform, the victims and reinforces the public’s trust in police or public officers. The bill was first introduced in 2010 but died on the floor when the 2011 election was called. It was brought to the house a second time in 2012.
“Four years ago I met a brave young lady and her mother who were seeking help,” said Dreeshen, who returned to Penhold to deliver the news to the small community. “The family understood a bill in Parliament would have no effect on the criminal proceedings that they were involved in yet they expressed their desire to help others who might find themselves in the same situation.”
Dreeshen said the impersonation of an officer is a serious breach of the public’s trust that has the same effect as using a weapon which forces a victim to submit.
“If they are under the control of anyone pretending to be an officer they will lose any opportunity that they might otherwise have to protect themselves,” he said. “We are taught respect and trust of the men and women who wear uniforms. When criminals start using this trust as a weapon, we need to start treating it within the Criminal Code for what it is.”
Dreeshen said the victim’s strength has improved with each stage of the process. He said there were concerns about how the process would affect the girl.
“But she is an amazing young lady,” said Dreeshen. “She’s strong. She knew that none of what I was doing on their behalf would change anything for her. It was a case of this could happen to someone else.”
Penhold Mayor Dennis Cooper said this is a great moment for the family because they created this change. Cooper said a positive change came out of the horrific incident that shook the small town. Cooper said there was a complete sense of disbelief that something like this could happen in Penhold.
The 16-year-old victim was followed home from a Penhold gas station and stopped by Baumgarte under the guise of an insurance check, who was dressed in a RCMP uniform in February 2009. His vehicle was equipped with red and blue flashing lights. He pulled a gun, yelled that the teen was under arrest before binding and blindfolding and throwing her into the truck of his car.
In the ensuing 47 hours, the victim was assaulted numerous times in a Red Deer residence. Baumgarte dropped the victim off at the Bower Place Shopping Centre where she called her family.
“The family went through a horrific experience,” said Cooper. “The family said they were going to make a difference and they did. It’s a positive change for all our citizens who have trust in our police officers,” said Cooper.