Armed cops need
arm’s-length treatment

We shouldn’t let police investigate selves,
or each other

A column by Ethan Baron in the Vancouver Province, Jan. 12, 2010

Cops’ lives come under threat with regularity. They can be shot. They can be stabbed. They can be run over by vehicles, beaten to death with bats, stuck with HIV-laden syringes, thrown through plate-glass windows, vaporized by explosives. And police put their own lives on the line while protecting the public from such fates.

Officers have to shoot people, sometimes. So when they do, I keep an open mind.

But when I was reading Province reporter Cheryl Chan’s story Monday about a man shot by police Saturday in Deep Cove, a comment from Vancouver Police Const. Lindsey Houghton stopped me cold.

The Vancouver department is investigating the shooting by a North Vancouver RCMP officer of Matthew John Wilcox, 39, who died in hospital Sunday.

This policy of one department investigating another is in force across B.C.

Removing the probe from the department where the shooting occurred is intended to produce an unbiased, arms-length analysis. It may result in a report to Crown counsel, who use the contents to decide whether an officer should be charged in relation to a shooting.

Houghton’s comment calls into question whether the Vancouver police will conduct an impartial investigation.

“Clearly, the officer saw the need and made the decision to draw his service pistol and . . . fire,” the media liaison told Chan.

An unbiased party would never make such a statement, which suggests a prejudgment that the officer had cause to shoot the man. Maybe there was no “need” for the officer to draw his gun. Maybe the policeman was so angry that Wilcox, who was “known to police,” wasn’t obeying the cops’ demands, that he just lost control and shot him.

Having police investigate themselves is absurd, even at purported arms-length. A finding that an officer shot someone without good reason damages the reputation of police in general. It’s against the interest of any department to issue a finding that another department’s cop killed someone who shouldn’t have been killed.

It’s quite possible that the policeman made the right decision in Deep Cove on Saturday afternoon, and that by shooting Wilcox, saved his own life, or that of other officers or members of the public.

Without an impartial investigation, we may never know if Wilcox posed enough threat that he needed to be shot.

There’s an easy solution to this problem, and Ontario adopted it in 1990 with the creation of the Special Investigations Unit.

An SIU background document states that the civilian agency, charged with investigating police shootings and other in-custody deaths, arose out of a strong belief that police investigating themselves “lacked the necessary objectivity required of policing.”

Why are we in B.C. so far behind?

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