By Greg Klein
Say what you will about the Christy Clark B.C. Liberals, they know how to pull off a surprise. There they were on May 17, the newly-elected premier with Solicitor-General Shirley Bond and Attorney General Barry Penner, announcing a decidedly watered-down version of the police oversight agency recommended last year by Thomas Braidwood.
Up front, on stage and on camera to show their support were Vancouver Police Chief Jim Chu, North Vancouver RCMP Supt. Tonia Enger, and Tom Stamatakis, a police lobbyist and president of the Vancouver Police Union, the B.C. Police Association, and the Canadian Police Association.
No surprises so far.
But in an absolutely stunning publicity coup, the government managed to trot out Braidwood himself, who actually endorsed legislation that will probably wreck his legacy. Not surprisingly, the mainstream media showered the government with praise. But the police oversight agency that the government announced that day was not the agency recommended by Braidwood.
The background is familiar enough. In October 2007 a newly arrived immigrant named Robert Dziekanski dies after being Tasered at Vancouver airport. The RCMP account gets thoroughly discredited by a video shot by Paul Pritchard. Crown attorneys at B.C.’s criminal justice branch refuse to lay charges against the four Mounties. After a public outcry the province appoints Braidwood, a retired judge, to head an inquiry into Dziekanski’s death and make recommendations.
After a two-year inquiry, Braidwood’s report called for restrictions on the use of Tasers. He also recommended B.C. create a civilian agency to investigate allegations of the most serious police misconduct. Braidwood wanted the agency modelled after Ontario’s Special Investigations Unit which, for all its shortcomings, is widely acknowledged to be Canada’s best police oversight agency. Braidwood emphasized that B.C.’s new agency should answer to the provincial Ombudsperson.
That last point was crucial. Braidwood no doubt knew that it took a lengthy investigation and a scathing report from Ontario’s Ombudsman to keep the SIU from becoming an apologist for the police.
The government waited a year. Now it’s finally announced its intention to create a civilian agency. But, in a move that the mainstream media totally missed, the province thwarted a key Braidwood recommendation. This is potentially serious enough to defeat the cause of police accountability in B.C.
The government stated that the new Independent Investigations Office will report to the Attorney General (and therefore not the Ombudsperson). That’s disturbing for a number of reasons. To give just one example, it was the AG’s Crown attorneys who exonerated the four Mounties involved in Dziekanski’s death. That was what led to Braidwood’s inquiry in the first place.
Furthermore, by having the IIO answer to a government ministry, there’s always the possibility of political interference.
It gets worse. The government added that incidents or complaints involving IIO staff will be investigated by B.C.’s Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner, which currently reviews police investigations into other police (other than the RCMP, who for the time being come under federal jurisdiction).
The government’s stipulation largely puts the IIO under the jurisdiction of ex-cops. Almost all senior positions at the OPCC are staffed by former police officers.
True, the OPCC just recently broke with tradition and hired some new staff from civilian backgrounds. But they hold very junior positions. For the most part their trainers, mentors, supervisors and managers are retired cops, often hired directly from the police forces they oversee.
An exception is police complaint commissioner Stan Lowe. But Lowe is a former Crown attorney and member of the criminal justice branch executive management that unanimously decided to exonerate the four RCMP officers involved in Robert Dziekanski’s Taser-related death. It was Lowe who made the infamous December 2008 announcement that the five Taser shocks inflicted on Dziekanski were “reasonable and necessary".
Lowe and his staff answer to no one—not the Ombudsperson nor anyone else. The lack of scrutiny is made worse by the fact that the OPCC releases very little information to a complainant about how the agency arrived at its decision. Moreover B.C.’s mainstream media, in glaring contrast to their counterparts in Ontario, give the police oversight agency a free ride.
Consequently there’s no way to determine how the OPCC carries out its duties.
Consider, for example, the incident in which a Vancouver police officer pushed a handicapped woman to the ground.
That took place on June 9, 2010. Yet it didn’t become public knowledge until over six weeks later, when the B.C. Civil Liberties Association released surveillance video and the media reported the story.
Vancouver police and the OPCC then acknowledged that they learned about the incident soon after it occurred. So why did it take more than six weeks to make a public announcement, transfer the officer out of the neighbourhood and call in an outside police force to investigate?
Now we’re told the OPCC, not the Ombudsperson, will ensure the IIO acts with transparency.
Ah, the government will say, the IIO will have an additional safeguard. It will have a civilian monitor who can review an IIO investigation. Trouble is, the civilian monitor gets appointed by the IIO director.
What else can go wrong for the new agency? The government can starve it of funding, staff it with people close to the police, or write ineffective legislation.
One positive note is that the IIO will have the power to investigate B.C.’s RCMP officers. But will that really change anything?
One can’t help wondering—because without an Ombudsperson’s oversight there’s little to keep B.C.’s new police watchdog from becoming another police lapdog.
But don’t expect to hear any outcry about this. The mainstream media generally ignore the OPCC, except to transcribe info from OPCC press releases. Or, occasionally, a compliant journalist will write a puff piece about what a great job Lowe and his crew of ex-cops are doing.
As for our opposition NDP, they helped appoint Stan Lowe police complaint commissioner. They did so just one week after his infamous Dziekanski announcement.
Then, in October 2009, the NDP joined the B.C. Liberals to unanimously pass minor Police Act amendments that preserved the status quo. The NDP’s support for B.C. Liberal stance on police accountability remains unswerving with the government’s May 17 announcement.
But the NDP should be worried from both a political and a policy perspective. The B.C. Liberals, by getting a well-respected jurist to endorse legislation that will probably wreck his own legacy, pulled off a major public relations coup. That suggests they can pass off any odious policy with political aplomb.
Greg Klein created the bcpolicecomplaints.org website.