Police accountability:
Comparing B.C. with Ontario (II)

Without an ombudsperson’s strong oversight
B.C.’s police ‘watchdog’ will remain
B.C.’s police lapdog

May 2, 2010


Discussion about B.C.’s police complaint system often focuses on whether police should investigate police. Occasionally a second question arises: whether ex-cops are the best people to investigate or at least oversee the police. A third question is all but missed: whether the police oversight agency should itself face oversight. Once again Ontario’s system, although far from perfect, shows some leadership.

At first, the idea of a watchdog watching a “watchdog” seems superfluous. But it’s not, especially when the “watchdog” consists of B.C.’s Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner — in other words, Stan Lowe and his crew of ex-cops.

They’re exempt from any kind of oversight. They answer to no one at all. It shows in their work.

Ontario’s Special Investigations Unit is considered Canada’s model of police accountability, a civilian organization that investigates serious police incidents. But it’s taken continued vigilance by activists, politicians, media and, possibly most of all, Ontario ombudsman Andre Marin just to try to keep the SIU impartial.

In June 2007, following two years of complaints, the ombudsman launched an extensive investigation into the SIU. Seven people assisted by a senior lawyer conducted the field investigation, while two more investigators helped review documents.

They conducted over 100 interviews with current and former SIU staff, officials in the Attorney General’s department, complainants, community groups, experts, consultants and lots of cops.

B.C.’s OPCC has never faced nearly as much scrutiny.

The investigation concluded with Marin’s oft-cited September 2008 report Oversight Unseen. He found many SIU investigations were tainted by inexplicable delays in attending the scene and interviewing witnesses. He also found the SIU too lenient with police officers who tried to delay or evade reporting incidents, handing over evidence and submitting to interviews.

Marin’s most important recommendation called on the SIU to hire more investigators from a purely civilian background to counteract an “internal culture overly influenced by a preponderance of ex-police officers among its staff.”

But, Marin wrote, the SIU’s willingness to follow his recommendations “appear quite superficial and [are] couched in vague and vapid generalities.” The ombudsman expressed hope that the new SIU director, due to take over the following month, would take a stronger approach.

If the number of charges laid by the SIU are any indication (unlike the OPCC, Ontario’s SIU director can lay criminal charges against police), things did pick up the following year. The SIU charged 13 officers in 2009, up from just three in 2008.

In response, Toronto Police Association president Mike McCormack accused SIU director Ian Scott of trying to appease the ombudsman. According to the Toronto Star, Scott had already “declared war against Ontario’s police unions, speaking out against the established practice of note vetting. Historically, when an officer has been implicated in an SIU investigation, a police union lawyer goes over the officer’s notes — and any witness officer’s notes — before submitting anything to SIU investigators.”

It’s hard to imagine any comparable conflict between B.C. police and the OPCC. Instead, following the VPD beating of Yao Wei Wu, police complaint commissioner Stan Lowe cozied up to Vancouver police chief Jim Chu at a joint press conference to tell reporters that the complaint system is “impartial.” Lowe’s participation was especially questionable given the VPD’s initial attempts to lie about the victim’s actions and the extent of his injuries.

In addition, at least some of Lowe’s ex-cops are closely connected to the cops they supposedly oversee. OPCC analyst Rollie Woods, for example, is a former colleague of Victoria police chief Jamie Graham, Abbotsford police chief Bob Rich, Vancouver police chief Jim Chu and many other Vancouver officers. Woods probably has lots of buddies throughout B.C.’s tightly knit police community.

Moreover if the SIU needs such vigilance, then the OPCC’s needs are greater. Almost every aspect of the OPCC — the police complaint commissioner, his staff and their decisions — shows it’s extremely close, extremely friendly to the police it supposedly oversees.

New legislation allows a complainant to make some kind of follow-up submission after receiving the OPCC’s final report. But the final report is still the final report. The new provision looks like a really cynical substitute for accountability.

Meanwhile Ontario’s provincial parliament took a retrograde step when creating its second police oversight agency. The Office of the Independent Police Review Director began operations last October with a mandate to review or, in some cases, investigate police incidents deemed less serious than those under SIU jurisdiction. But unlike the SIU, the OIPRD enjoys immunity from the ombudsman.

Speaking to an Ontario parliamentary (legislative) committee, Marin said there’s no reason to justify such immunity. He added that the ombudsman’s job is to guard against any government body that acts in a way that’s “contrary to law, unreasonable, unjust, oppressive, improperly discriminatory or just plain wrong.”

Most of those ills apply to B.C.’s OPCC. But, short of legislative reform, there’s nothing anyone can do about it. As a statutory officer, or independent officer of the legislature, B.C.’s police complaint commissioner answers to no one. In practice that immunity extends to the ex-cops on his staff.

These problems will take on even greater significance if the RCMP come under provincial jurisdiction when their contract is renewed in 2012.

One more question remains: Are all ombudsfolk made of the same stuff? Marin, as SIU director from September 1996 to June 1998, knew the agency well prior to his 2007 investigation. And he might be an unusually strong advocate. If B.C. MLAs were to select an ombudsperson the way they selected the police complaint commissioner, we’d be stuck with another servant of the status quo posing as a crusader for justice.

That would leave civil suits as our only recourse.


June 24, 2010 update: The Braidwood Report recommends that B.C. establish civilian investigation of serious incidents involving both RCMP and municipal police, and that the new agency answer to B.C.’s ombudsperson. But, contrary to Braidwood’s wishes, the BC Liberals might put the new agency under OPCC jurisdiction.

Police accountability: Comparing B.C. with Ontario (I)
Their system is a flawed work in progress
but it surpasses ours in three crucial areas
Police accountability: Comparing B.C. with Ontario (III)
A conflict between Ontario police and the SIU
contrasts with the very chummy relationship
between B.C. cops and the OPCC
Police accountability: Comparing B.C. with Ontario (IV)
Ontario’s NDP criticizes the AG for
‘buckling under a very powerful police lobby.’
Meanwhile B.C.’s NDP, Liberals and cops
stand united against police accountability
Police accountability: Comparing B.C. with Ontario (V)
Ontario’s SIU faces public criticism and a second investigation
by the provincial Ombudsman. B.C.’s OPCC continues to escape scrutiny
Police accountability: Comparing B.C. with Ontario (VI)
You won’t read this in B.C.’s mainstream media.
And that’s part of the reason we’ll never have effective police oversight
Read about B.C.’s inadequate Independent Investigations Office
Read about Stan Lowe and the OPCC
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