B.C. Coroners Service information blackout on police-involved deaths raises red flags for accountability

Earlier this year, the B.C. Coroners Service quietly stopped releasing details on deaths involving police, prompting one watchdog to ring an alarm for a lack of oversight

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      The B.C. Coroners Service has stopped releasing information on deaths involving police.

      Historically, any time that somebody in B.C. dies during an interaction with police or in the custody of law enforcement or a B.C. prison, the coroners service has sent out a short media release.

      These documents included the date of the incident, the police department involved, and, if available, the name of the deceased. They also usually indicated whether or not a firearm was discharged.

      For almost three years, the Straight has used this information to maintain a public database of police-involved deaths across B.C.

      But the last time that the coroners service proactively disclosed information about a police-involved death was November 2016. Early in the morning on November 24, Prince George RCMP arrested a 51-year-old First Nations man named Jamie Shanoss. According to that release, he was placed in a cell and then found unresponsive shortly after and pronounced deceased.

      The coroners service says it has stopped releasing that sort of information because a review of disclosure practices is underway. The Crown corporation would not provide a date for exactly when this change took effect, except to say that it was sometime in “early 2017”.

      Pressed on the matter, the agency’s spokesperson, Andy Watson, confirmed there has been at least one police-involved death since then, sometime in April 2017.

      Watson would not give an exact date or reveal what police agency or B.C. prison was involved. (It may have been a 40-year-old Kelowna man who died in an RCMP jail cell on April 1.) Beyond that death, it is difficult to determine how many similar fatalities have occurred since the coroners service ceased releasing this information.

      In a telephone interview, Doug King, a lawyer with Pivot Legal Society, said that losing the coroners service as a source of information for police-involved deaths will hurt transparency and accountability.

      “This creates a gap,” he told the Straight. “It is problematic because we know from experience that media attention and public outcry has a significant impact on how police investigations and coroners inquests unfold. The sad reality is that the more attention a file gets, the more scrutiny it receives and the closer we get to finding some real answers.”

      There is a second agency in B.C. that releases information about police-involved deaths. That’s the Independent Investigations Office of B.C. (IIOBC).

      But King emphasized the IIOBC only sends out information concerning cases to which it dispatches an investigation team and for which it deems there is a public interest. Those are different measures than those that were previously used by the coroners service.

      For example, the IIOBC did not issue a media release on the November 2016 death of Shanoss, and there is no mention of Shanoss’s death anywhere on the IIOBC website.

      If the coroners service had not sent out a release about it, the public might not have learned that a First Nations man died in police custody in Prince George that morning.

      On the IIOBC’s website, there is also no mention of a death involving law enforcement in April (the incident that Watson confirmed but for which he declined to provide any other details).

      In a telephone interview, Watson emphasized that none of these changes in how the coroners service release information are specific to law enforcement; they actually pertain to all deaths of public interest. In addition, Watson said that the coroners service has not officially stopped proactively releasing information. Rather, it is reviewing practices to ensure they comply with B.C. Coroners Act and privacy legislation. When that process is complete, he said, sometime near the end of this summer, it is possible the coroners service will resume releasing information in the manner it did before the review was initiated.

      Watson claimed there was no specific incident that prompted the review.

      “There was a realization that there could be violations of privacy impact,” he said. “Once the review is complete, we will provide a summary of the information-release policy and what changes there are, if any.”

      He added that the coroners service continues to issue public information about deaths that result in a formal inquest. But Pivot's King noted that inquests are often not announced until months, or even more than a year, after a death occurs.

      Since 2015 the Straight has maintained a public database of civilian deaths that involve police or a B.C. prison.
      Travis Lupick

      According to the Straight’s online database, there were 11 deaths in B.C. last year that occurred in police custody or during an incident involving police. Another four occurred in B.C. prisons. For 2015, those numbers are 12 and three, and for 2014, they are 10 and three.

      Since 2006, the Straight counts 146 deaths in B.C. involving police or a prison.

      The B.C. Ministry of Public Safety did not grant an interview.

      The VPD refused to give a date for the last time someone died in their custody or during an incident involving an officer. Const. Jason Doucette, a spokesperson for the force, referred that question to the B.C. Coroners Service and the IIOBC.

      Sgt. Annie Linteau, a spokesperson for the B.C. RCMP, at first referred questions to the coroners service and the IIOBC. However, she subsequently referenced a media release that states an RCMP in-custody death occurred in B.C. on April 1, when a 40-year-old man died in a jail cell in Kelowna.

      The B.C. Coroners Service told the Straight that figuring out the last time that someone died while interacting with law enforcement is a question that would likely take some time to answer. They referred to the IIOBC.

      Marten Youssef is the IIOBC’s director of public engagement and policy. In a telephone interview, he told the Straight that the most recent civilian death involving the VPD was on November 10, 2016. That incident concerned an alleged robbery of a Canadian Tire store.

      The last time that any police force in B.C. saw an in-custody or police-interaction death was yesterday (June 18), when Coquitlam RCMP responded to a Port Coquitlam man who had allegedly fired a gun in the air. No other details have been made available. Before that, on June 14, a man committed suicide during an episode involving Langley RCMP. That incident remains under investigation and the IIOBC has not yet determined if the death will be deemed to have actually involved police. If it does not, the IIOBC will not post any notice of it on its website.

      King said it all raises questions about the potential benefits of a single body overseeing police conduct in the province, something that he noted Ontario is discussing.

      “No one seems to know who is responsible for what, and it is incredibly difficult to navigate and get basic information about what’s occurred,” he said. “We think there needs to be some streamlining in the police-accountability process.”

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