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

Jan. 15, 2011

The following is an op-ed submission that the Vancouver Sun declined to print. The factual statements can be easily verified and I certainly think the point of view is valid. Yet the Sun’s rejection isn’t surprising — one of my points is that the mainstream media neglect important issues related to police accountability.


At this point no one can predict which party, under which leader, will address which issues as B.C.’s next provincial government. But one issue that won’t be addressed, at least not effectively, is police accountability. Take a look at Ontario to see why.

Ontario’s system of police oversight has its flaws, but it’s widely considered Canada’s best. It resulted from widespread community activism, an informed media, an opposition party that took up the cause, a governing party that listened and a provincial Ombudsman with authority over the issue. None of those circumstances exist in B.C.

The reasons are somewhat intertwined. Neither the BC Liberals nor the NDP say much about police accountability, other than to claim they’re in favour of it. So the issue lacks the political drama that attracts media.

The community activists recognized by journalists mostly consist of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, whom the media have granted a near-monopoly on critical comment about the issue. The BCCLA performs a valuable service by pointing out police misconduct and the problems of police investigating each other. But if the BCCLA doesn’t address related issues, that shouldn’t mean they’re beyond the pale.

Nevertheless we hear almost nothing about what would be highly controversial developments had they occurred in Ontario.

Consider the appointment of Stan Lowe as B.C.’s police complaint commissioner.

Lowe was a 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. In December 2008 Lowe publicly announced that the five Taser shocks inflicted on Dziekanski were “reasonable and necessary.” One week later a committee of five MLAs representing both BC Liberals and NDP unanimously appointed Lowe police complaint commissioner.

In October 2009, despite heightened public concern, both parties unanimously passed Police Act amendments that changed nothing of substance. They retained the system of police investigating police with a review by B.C.’s Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner.

It’s staffed almost entirely by former police officers. The few exceptions are people with backgrounds closely connected to the police. The OPCC even hires people directly from the police forces it supposedly oversees.

The OPCC answers to no one. As police complaint commissioner, Lowe is a statutory officer (an independent officer of the Legislative Assembly) and therefore doesn’t answer to the province’s Ombudsperson — or anyone else for that matter. In practice that immunity also applies to his staff.

The lack of scrutiny is made worse by the fact that most details about investigations into the police are confidential. The police and OPCC reveal very little to a complainant or victim.

How well does this system work? Let’s consider what happened — or didn’t happen — after a Vancouver police officer shoved a disabled woman to the ground.

The incident took place on June 9. Yet it didn’t become public knowledge until July 22, when the BCCLA released surveillance video (once again showing the group’s valuable work) 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?

A skeptic might suggest that the July 22 before-and-after contrast shows how other allegations of police misconduct are handled. It all depends on whether the case gets publicity, the attention of an influential group or caught on video.

Yet the BC Liberals are talking about putting Thomas Braidwood’s recommended Independent Investigation Office under OPCC jurisdiction.

Following his inquiry into Dziekanski’s death, Braidwood recommended B.C. create a civilian agency to investigate serious allegations against police. Braidwood wanted the IIO modeled on Ontario’s Special Investigations Unit and answerable to the provincial Ombudsperson. Braidwood probably knew that it took a lengthy investigation by Ontario’s Ombudsman to keep the SIU from becoming an apologist for the police. But on June 18 the B.C. government replied that it might put the new agency under the jurisdiction of the OPCC instead of the Ombudsperson.

Incredibly, that statement was missed by B.C.’s media, official opposition and “official” activists. If something like that happened in Ontario all three of those groups would have expressed outrage, as would Ontario’s Ombudsman. They would have also criticized every other development noted above.

But that simply doesn’t happen here. And, unless something changes drastically, that’s why B.C.’s police status quo will prevail.


Some additional notes: To meet the Sun’s 750-word limit for op-ed submissions I had to leave out a bit of info. I would have liked to explain that Ontario has two police oversight agencies (the SIU and the Office of the Independent Police Review Director). Ontario’s Ombudsman has jurisdiction over the SIU but not the OIPRD, a fact that’s brought the government criticism.

I would have also liked to note that even if the IIO is kept separate from the OPCC we’ll likely still be stuck with Stan Lowe and his crew of ex-cops handling “less serious” allegations of police misconduct — like the VPD assault on a handicapped woman.

Apart from putting the IIO under OPCC jurisdiction, the provincial government could also neuter the new agency by staffing it with OPCC re-treads or people similar to the OPCC’s staff, by starving the agency of funding, or by writing ineffective legislation. Even if the IIO comes under the Ombudsperson’s authority, the legislature could appoint an establishment lackey to the Ombudsperson’s job. That’s how the government and opposition fill the police complaint commissioner’s job.

There’s also a possibility that the government will use the Pickton inquiry as an excuse to continue stalling for years to come.

Update: To almost universal acclaim
the BC Liberals evaded the letter and intent
of Braidwood’s recommendations
... with more than a little help from Braidwood himself
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 (II)
Without an ombudsperson’s strong oversight
B.C.’s police ‘watchdog’ will remain B.C.’s police lapdog
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