Exclusive op-ed: Outgoing head of B.C.’s civilian-led police watchdog asks for more support

Richard Rosenthal, who ends his term as the head of the Independent Investigations Office next week, has this message for government.

By Richard Rosenthal

Next month will mark the nine-year anniversary of the death of Robert Dziekański at the Vancouver International Airport after he was “tasered” by RCMP officers. Mr. Dziekanski’s death was followed by a public outcry which included public concerns about the police investigating themselves.

The B.C. government subsequently responded to two different public inquiries, which were aligned with a strong public interest to create an independent agency to investigate police-related incidents resulting in death and serious injury. I was hired in January 2012 as the first chief civilian director of the Independent Investigations Office to launch the new office.

Today, the IIO serves as an independent civilian-led office with investigators with both police and non-police backgrounds.

Since its opening on Sept. 10, 2012, the IIO has closed 123 investigations, the majority of which resulted in public reports clearing the officers. One of the early successes of the office was the creation and publication of these public reports, which outline the reasons for exonerating officers, and provide sufficient information for the public to have confidence in the integrity of this decision-making process.

On Sept. 7, I will be retiring from my position with the IIO. Although British Columbians are better served today than they were prior to the office’s establishment, much work needs to be done in order to ensure the program’s long-term success.

The IIO’s mandate is to investigate all police related  incidents involving death or “serious harm,” regardless of whether or not there is any allegation of misconduct associated with the incident under investigation. Given no discretion in what cases to investigate, the IIO has no means to manage its caseload and its ability to operate in the future could  be negatively impacted by spikes in police related deaths or injuries.

In order for the IIO to meet its mandate in the future and succeed in the long term, the office will need significant support from the government in three ways:

1.  The government must update the Police Act to give the director discretion in what cases will be investigated. In addition, although I strongly support the long-term civilianization of the IIO program, future directors must be given the discretion to hire any qualified and appropriate person to serve as an investigator until such time as the program is ready for full civilianization; as such, the requirement that the director not hire any person as an IIO investigator who has served as a police officer in B.C. in the five years preceding his or her appointment, should be abolished.

2.  Regulations need to be created by the government to ensure best practices in investigations by the IIO. Currently, the IIO is operating under a memorandum of understanding with the police community that was created in 2012. Although the memorandum has worked well to ensure collaboration and cooperation between the IIO and the police community, conflicts have arisen that cannot be appropriately resolved through further compromise. Specifically, police officers involved in critical incidents must be required to write timely reports explaining their actions; police officers must be precluded from viewing incident video prior to being interviewed by the IIO and witness police officers should be required to provide video-recorded statements to the IIO upon request.

3.  The IIO must be provided with the resources necessary to ensure thorough and timely investigations. While the IIO was able to operate at a surplus in its first few years of operations, as the IIO continues to develop it will require additional resources to operate at full capacity and complete pending investigations according to the legitimate expectations of the community and the police.

It is an axiom of police oversight that one cannot create an independent investigation mechanism without giving constant attention to its development and needs. Immediate attention in the form of legislation and regulation can ensure that the funding for this important program will go to good use.

Richard Rosenthal

Chief civilian director, Independent Investigations Office of B.C.

 

IIO statistics

·         123 cases closed since September 2012.

·         68 Public Reports (no offence committed)

·         55 Reports to Crown counsel for consideration of charges

·         55 open cases (fluid number)

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