Reasonable Doubt: Police under microscope with B.C. Independent Investigations Office
Last week, Nancy Seto wrote about lawyers and self-regulation. Self-regulating professions or those with minimal civilian oversight get a lot of flack, and the landscape is changing. The public is accepting less and less self-regulation and new measures are being implemented to monitor insular, highly specialized, and powerful groups. In B.C., the police are the currently under the microscope.
Background for those not up to speed
Robert Dziekanski and Frank Paul are two men whose deaths at the hands of police resulted in civilian inquiries into police decisions and actions. The Braidwood Inquiry and the Davies Commission have fundamentally changed the way we police the police. As a direct result of these two inquiries, the B.C. government is establishing a new office, the Independent Investigations Office (IIO), which is responsible for investigating incidents where a person is grievously injured or killed at the hands of the police.
Until now there was the Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner, Commission for Public Complaints against the RCMP, and investigations by other police detachments. In the case of Jamie Haller, the Williams Lake girl that was punched in the face by a police officer while she was handcuffed, there was an investigation of the Williams Lake RCMP by the Abbottsford Police Department. These mechanisms of investigating deaths and bodily injury, for the most part, do not provide the level of transparency and rigor that the public requires to maintain confidence in our police forces. The alternative, the inquiries and the commissions, are cumbersome, lengthy, and extremely expensive.
So, this is not news. But what exactly is happening with the promised IIO?
The IIO is set to open this year (June 2012); the government is currently recruiting civilians with investigation skills and former RCMP officers or former police officers from outside B.C. that have not served as part of any force for at least five years. The dream is that one day the office will be composed entirely of civilians who have never been a part of any police force.
Understandably, the reason for recruiting former police officers now would be because most civilians will not have the investigatory experience necessary to make this office effective immediately. For the most part, leaving private investigators aside, it is hard to think of a profession or area of work that would engage in investigations similar to that of the police (or perhaps my imagination and experience limit me).
How do we make sure IIO investigations are fair and rigorous?
IIO investigations are subject to monitoring by a person who is not an IIO investigator to assess the integrity of any investigation. This person must swear an oath to impartially and fairly assess any investigation and, judging from the legislation, conducts an audit of an investigation and provides a written report to the chief civilian director.
A new office needs a strong leader. Who will run the IIO?
The IIO is under the control and management of the chief civilian director, who serves for an initial term of five years and may serve for a second term of five years, but no more. The person is responsible for appointing his (because the first chief civilian director is a man) investigating team and the civilian monitors that assess them.
The first IIO chief civilian director will be Richard Rosenthal, an American man, who spearheaded a movement towards establishing independent investigations offices in two other cities. One news article on Rosenthal explains that Rosenthal’s career in monitoring and investigating police was kick started when he was a prosecutor in LA and he uncovered widespread corruption in the Rampart anti-gang taskforce police unit. The Rampart Scandal investigation resulted in a huge investigation and many criminal charges for corrupt police officers. The Rampart Scandal charges came to naught, however, and LA became the defendant in a 140 civil suits resulting in settlements totaling $140 million. In short, it was a disaster.
Needing to leave LA, Rosenthal moved onto Portland and later Denver where he set up offices similar to the IIO here. These offices had some success. It makes a difference when the government and the public supports the mandate of an independent investigations office. In Canadian news articles on the IIO, there seems to be the understanding that the B.C. IIO will take what Rosenthal was doing in Portland and Denver one step further making our IIO a forefront in independent oversight of police. Only time will tell if the IIO can fulfill this expectation, but it seems to be a good step forward right now.
Reasonable Doubt appears on Straight.com on Fridays. The column’s writers, Laurel Dietz and Nancy Seto, are criminal defence lawyers at Cobb St. Pierre Lewis. You can send your questions for the column to them at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A word of caution: Don’t take this column as personal legal advice, because it’s not. It is intended for general information and entertainment purposes only.