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British Columbia launches independent police watchdog

VICTORIA (Canadian OH&S News)


VICTORIA (Canadian OH&S News)

Police officers in British Columbia who are involved in deaths or serious injuries will now be held accountable by an independent civilian watchdog agency.

On Sept. 10, the Independent Investigations Office (IIO) officially launched, effectively taking the reins in investigating when deaths or serious injuries that occur as the result of action taken by the RCMP and all other police forces in the province, including municipal police departments, the transportation authority and the aboriginal police force.

The creation of an independent watchdog agency comes after two public inquiries into hotly-contested deaths involving the RCMP and the Vancouver Police Department. In 2007, Robert Dziekanski was tasered to death by RCMP officers at the Vancouver airport, and in 1998, Frank Paul froze to death in an alleyway after he was released from the city’s drunk tank.

Both deaths prompted recommendations from public inquiries calling for the creation of a third-party accountability office.

As the newly-appointed chief civilian officer, Richard Rosenthal said the IIO will conduct thorough, fair, unbiased and competent investigations.

“It was a day born out of two tragedies,” said Rosenthal, who has never served as a police officer. “If I believe that the officer has committed a criminal offence, I will send the case to the Crown, the Crown retains its independence, making its own decision as to whether or not criminal charges should be laid. If I conclude an officer did not commit a criminal act, then I will close out the case and I will publicly report on the reasons why.”

The creation of the IIO was a long time coming, according to the B.C. Civil Liberties Association. “Simply, police investigating themselves has been a major issue in terms of ensuring public confidence in very highly-charged cases,” said David Eby, executive director of the association in Vancouver.

“Both [public inquiries] found the investigations to be lacking in terms of testing the evidence, gathering necessary witness statements, examining physical evidence at the scene, and putting questions to the officers who were involved. In fact, they were more consistent with protecting the interests of the police rather than protecting the interests of the public and ensuring adequate police accountability.”

But despite being a step in the right direction, Eby said the IIO mandate falls short.

“The jurisdiction for this body right now is serious harm, which is like physically disabling injuries and or death. We expect this mandate to expand fairly rapidly,” he said, noting that allegations of sexual assault by police officers do not fall under the IIO’s purview.

However, Rosenthal argued his team must establish their footing before venturing into new territory.

“Right now, sexual assault does not fall under the mandate of concurrent physical injury, broken bones, life-threatening injuries,” he said. “We want to make sure we’re doing this right first, make sure we’re adequately resourced. If we’re able to get the appropriate resources, our mandate would be expanded once government has determined we’re fulfilling our current mandate.”

In a pre-emptive move to avoid any potential for bias, the IIO’s mandate stated that it must not have anyone on staff who has served as a police officer in the province for the past five years.

Minister of Justice and Attorney General Shirley Bond called the opening of the IIO office a “historic shift,” and added that it is the first step to restoring the public’s trust in provincial police forces.

Quoting Justice Thomas Braidwood, who presided over the Dziekanski inquiry, she said at the opening ceremony of the IIO, “‘the most important weapon in the arsenal of the police is public support.’ I agree with that wholeheartedly … I am confident that civillian-led investigations will be conducted in a timely and transparent way, helping to restore public confidence in policing.”

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