After three off-duty and intoxicated police officers were arrested in the early-morning beating of newspaper carrier Firoz Khan, Vancouver police chief Jim Chu touted his department’s response as “open and transparent”.
“I am also pleased with the unprecedented swiftness of this investigation,” he added.
Looking back on the case, Greg Klein, a citizen watchdog for law enforcement in B.C., argued that Chu had nothing to brag about. “The police had the bloodied and battered victim in handcuffs for quite a while,” Klein told the Georgia Straight, citing media reports. “They still had Khan in handcuffs, and they were assuming that the three police officers, off-duty or not, were right and the other guy was wrong.”
Criminal charges were quickly laid against two of the officers involved in the January 2009 incident. West Vancouver constable Griffin Gillan pleaded guilty to common assault and was sentenced to 21 days of house arrest on July 29 of this year. New Westminster constable Jeffrey Klassen was charged with assault and possession of stolen property. On October 12, his trial began in Vancouver provincial court.
Klein described Khan’s beating as just one more incident on an ever-growing list. What’s more, he argued, the B.C. justice system’s handling of the case is further evidence that when law enforcement is in the wrong, it’s still an uphill battle to see that the offenders are fairly punished.
Since Ian Bush was fatally shot in the back of the head while in custody at an RCMP detachment in Houston, B.C., on October 29, 2005, the media have increasingly reported on concerns such as Klein’s. And the province seems to have noticed. On June 18, for example, Attorney General and Solicitor General Michael de Jong announced that his office will create a new oversight unit to investigate serious incidents of police misconduct in B.C.
But Klein and some Vancouver lawyers and academics argue that police culture now pervades the bodies that are meant to hold law-enforcement officials accountable. The result is biased investigations and negligible penalties, they say. Others claim that law enforcement is already the most heavily scrutinized industry in the province. Some go so far as to argue that too many levels of oversight are already interfering with officers’ ability to serve the public.
Regardless, a new investigative unit is coming, changes are happening at the Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner—which orders investigations into municipal police officers’ actions and reviews police chiefs’ disciplinary decisions—and as the B.C. government prepares to renegotiate its contract with the RCMP for March 2012, it is all but certain that RCMP detachments policing B.C. communities will lose the power to investigate their own officers’ actions. What remains to be seen is exactly how all of this will play out, and if anything will really change.
Over the Past three years, Klein has become something of an expert on police accountability. His interest in the topic began with a personal experience with the OPCC that dragged on for 14 months and left him so dissatisfied with the police-complaints process that he started a website. Klein now tracks developments in law-enforcement and private-security misconduct and shares his take on events online.
On November 14, 2007, Vancouver resident Paul Pritchard released this video of RCMP officers confronting Polish immigrant Robert Dziekanski, who died shortly after he was tasered repeatedly.
On the subject of the OPCC, Klein doesn’t hold back. “The OPCC is way too close to the police and they answer to nobody,” he said. “And I think that shows in their work. I don’t think their work would stand up to independent scrutiny, and I think they are complacent.”
The OPCC does have ties to municipal police and RCMP forces in B.C. and to professionals who work closely with law enforcement.
Stan Lowe, current head of the OPCC, is a former prosecutor and was the Crown attorney who publicly announced the criminal justice branch’s decision to exonerate the four RCMP officers involved in the death of Robert Dziekanski. On December 12, 2008, Lowe stated that the officers’ use of force was “reasonable and necessary”.
The body’s second in command, Bruce Brown, is a former RCMP officer, as are two of the OPCC’s seven investigative analysts. Two others are former police officers, and another is a former B.C. sheriff.
Cameron Ward is a Vancouver-based lawyer who has represented people with complaints against police and the RCMP for more than a decade. He told the Straight it is his experience that systems that let the police and RCMP investigate the actions of other law-enforcement officials produce “very lengthy and usually very unsatisfactory investigations”.
Ward said he is encouraged by recent developments like de Jong’s announcement that a new investigative unit is coming. But he cautioned that changes meant to increase accountability have been promised before. “And I really can’t say that I’ve perceived notable improvement over time,” he stated.
On July 22, 2010, the B.C. Civil Liberties Associaition released this video of a VPD officer shoving a disabled woman in the Downtown Eastside.
In a telephone interview with the Straight, Lowe took issue with claims that former law-enforcement officials reviewing the actions of police officers has translated into biased investigations.
He said that when he took office in February 2009, one of the first things he did was ask to review every decision the OPCC had made over a two-month period.
“I found [OPCC] civilians that”¦demonstrated perhaps a slight bias towards police officers, and [former] police officers that demonstrated a slight bias against police officers,” he recalled. But Lowe conceded that the public’s faith in police accountability has wavered.
“I think that public confidence begins first with the process,” he explained. “And I think that the process requires that in any oversight organization there be a significant civilian component.”
On September 24, Lowe presented a report to the legislative assembly that asked for $305,000 in additional funding for the current fiscal year that he said would allow him to increase the number of staff in his office. Lowe said that such a significant budget increase was needed because of a sharp rise in the number of complaints his office is receiving. According to the report, the number of complaint files the OPCC opens province-wide is on track to roughly double. For a six-month period beginning April 1, 2009, the OPCC opened 282 complaint files. For 2010, that number was 566. Lowe attributed the increase in complaints to changes to the B.C. Police Act that make it easier for people to file complaints with the OPCC.
Lowe said his goal is to shift the ratio of former law-enforcement officials to civilians in decisive roles at the OPCC, which is currently six to three, to six to eight. He hopes to begin this transition on November 1 and complete it by April 1, 2011. (It should be noted that during the interview, Lowe categorized investigative analyst Tom Collins—a former B.C. sheriff—as a civilian, even though sheriffs are peace officers as defined by the Criminal Code of Canada.)
“What I’m hoping to do is bring in a bunch of young, inspired, intelligent civilian analysts and draw on that expertise of the current complement of retired officers to train them,” Lowe said.
Klein expressed skepticism about what tangible changes this shakeup might produce. He emphasized how entrenched he believes police culture to be at the OPCC. “Even if they do hire one or two people who have unrelated backgrounds, I think they are going to find themselves pressured to adapt to the police culture and become part of it,” he said.
It’s more than just the OPCC that is acting to restore the public’s faith in police accountability in B.C. On June 18, de Jong announced that a new civilian-led unit was coming to the province.
Emerging from a recommendation included in the Braidwood Inquiry’s report on the death of Dziekanski, the so-called Independent Investigation Office is expected to have a mandate to investigate all municipal-police-force and RCMP–related deaths and serious incidents in B.C. Although the proposed IIO was received positively by many, some high-ranking officials have already said that the province’s plan does not go far enough in eliminating perceptions of bias in investigations of law enforcement.
In an October 6 news release, VPD chief Jim Chu stated: “I strongly urge the government to consider expanding the mandate of this proposed agency to handle all complaints against police.”
During a teleconference later that day, de Jong responded to Chu and said that the B.C. government is “absolutely” going to consider expanding the mandate of the IIO.
Pressed on when the public will know whether or not the Liberal government accepts Chu’s recommendations, de Jong said: “I know there are other police departments in the province that will want to provide their views, and I will make those views known publicly as well, because what we need to arrive at is an approach that works for everyone.”
Braidwood’s report also recommended allowing a five-year transition period during which the IIO could have former police officers
David MacAlister, codirector of the Institute for Studies in Criminal Justice Policy at SFU, described the IIO announcement as a start, but he quickly added that he already has questions about how the new oversight body will take shape.
“My concern is that instead of using a former police officer to head it, that we end up with a former prosecutor,” MacAlister explained. “And I don’t see that as the right answer. I think the public knows full well that prosecutors and police work hand in hand.”
He continued, “In order for an agency to be totally independent, it seems to me it would have to be staffed entirely of individuals who have no prior connections to the police.”
MacAlister also questioned the plan to have the IIO responsible to the attorney general, whose office has historically had close ties to law-enforcement agencies in B.C. In 2001, the B.C. Liberal government split the offices of the attorney general and solicitor general, which allowed matters of police administration and issues of public safety, such as police oversight, to be dealt with by separate offices. But when Liberal MLA Kash Heed resigned from his post as solicitor general in April, Premier Gordon Campbell made Attorney General de Jong the head of both ministries.
MacAlister said an ideal scenario would instead see the head of the IIO responsible to a legislative committee and not a political appointee.
Asked for his thoughts on the IIO, Tom Stamatakis, president of the B.C. Police Association, told the Straight it’s not really an issue.
“There are so many levels of oversight that exist for police officers in the province, and so we’re used to working in that kind of environment,” he explained. But Stamatakis went on to question where the balance between police independence and oversight now lies.
“The police community, at least at the frontline level, has become completely frustrated with what’s happening in this province and this continued furor around oversight of police conduct,” he said. “So this is just one more step, I guess, in how this is all evolving.”
Stamatakis cautioned that overkill on police oversight could already be negatively affecting how officers respond to calls in challenging areas like the Downtown Eastside.
“I think we are starting to see an unwillingness to get involved in certain types of situations for fear of what is going to happen after,” he said. “What we’ve created in this province, I think, is affecting how police officers do their work, to the point where I think it potentially creates a safety issue both for the officers and for the public.”
This video of Victoria police officers confronting citizens outside a nightclub has been viewed on YouTube by hundreds of thousands of people.
MacAlister warned against jumping to conclusions and attributing calls for greater accountability to an actual increase in police and RCMP misconduct. Although it is possible that this is happening, he said, we are also seeing the proliferation of cellphone cameras translate into videos of police officers’ actions that can make for sensational footage on the 6 o’clock news. “Or there may be just an increasing intolerance,” he continued. “So I think that it could be a combination of a number of different things at play.”
Klein argued that law-enforcement offices in B.C. have simply proven they cannot investigate their own actions in an impartial manner.
Abbotsford police chief Bob Rich, who conducted the disciplinary hearing on Gillan’s role in Khan’s beating, recommended that Gillan be allowed to keep his job with the West Vancouver Police Department, Klein noted. And last month, the OPCC granted a second extension of the Delta Police Department’s investigation into Gillan and Klassen’s alleged assault of Khan.
Klein argued that law enforcement is different from other fields that regulate themselves, such as medicine and law. “They have a very intense police culture which separates them from the rest of society,” he said. If that mentality extends into the bodies that are meant to oversee law-enforcement agencies, he continued, biased investigations are inevitable.
You can follow Travis Lupick on Twitter at twitter.com/tlupick.