Proposed civilian unit
to look into police
not all it seems

Gary Mason, Globe and Mail, Sept. 26, 2009


It sounded so promising.

The RCMP and chiefs of municipal police forces in British Columbia holding a joint news conference to call for the unthinkable: an independent, civilian-run unit to investigate police-involved deaths and other serious allegations against officers.

A year ago they were all against it.

Finally, they seemed to be acknowledging what a growing number of observers had been saying in recent years: The public no longer trusted police to investigate themselves.

It was time to hand over probes of these often sensitive and highly charged cases to a neutral, civilian task force.

Except that’s not what the Mounties and police chiefs are calling for.

Under their proposal, police officers would continue to do the investigating of any police-involved death.

The difference would be, they would then hand over their findings to a civilian authority, instead of to their bosses.

Sorry, but that doesn’t cut it.

The public’s misgivings result from the many reports of instances where police, willfully or otherwise, carried out wholly deficient investigations of fellow officers.

By the time many of the problems with these investigations surfaced, it was too late to do much about it.

The crime scene had long since been contaminated. Witnesses were dead. And the officers involved had time to construct a story that jibed with the evidence at hand.

I’m not saying this happens all the time.

But it’s happened enough that it’s created the massive distrust of police-led investigations into police that exists today.

Even some senior police officers recognize this.

To that point, it was beyond ironic that at the inquiry into the death of Polish immigrant Robert Dziekanski this week, the superintendent in charge of the RCMP investigation into the matter stunned the courtroom by admitting the Mounties should not be investigating themselves.

“We’re not good at it ... we shouldn’t be doing this,” Superintendent Wayne Rideout said.

No kidding. And the Dziekanski case is a prime example of that.

The four officers involved gave initial statements to investigators that were completely contradicted by video evidence from the scene that surfaced shortly after. Yet the officers were never asked to explain or account for the discrepancies. E-mails vanished. Seniors officers gave conflicting accounts of internal discussions about what happened.

It was a complete farce.

In B.C., there is a long list of cases — from Ian Bush to Kevin St. Arnaud, both shot and killed by RCMP officers under questionable circumstances — where police investigations raised more questions than answers.

I think the joint RCMP-police chiefs proposal is a pre-emptive strike. I think the two groups know what’s coming and they’re trying to cut that off at the pass. And what’s coming, hopefully, is a full-fledged, independent investigative unit, made up of trained civilians. It would be similar to Ontario’s Special Investigations Unit and the Independent Investigation Unit being set up in Manitoba, and arms-length investigative forces sprouting up around the world.

Having said that, a chat yesterday with Kash Heed, B.C.’s Minister of Public Safety and Solicitor-General, didn’t fill me with confidence that a bold move on this front is going to happen any time soon.

Mr. Heed sounded every bit the politician when I asked him his view on this subject. He kept repeating: All I want is the most accountable, transparent and effective policing in Canada. But he wouldn’t say where he stood on civilian oversight.

A recently retired police chief himself, Mr. Heed said he didn’t want to prejudge anything Thomas Braidwood, the head of the Dziekanski [inquiry], has to say on the subject. Sounds like someone trying to buy himself some time.

I will be shocked if Mr. Braidwood, a former judge whose handling of the inquiry has been nothing short of brilliant, doesn’t recommend that police get out of the business of investigating themselves. And as soon as possible. He has seen up close why it shouldn’t happen and his final report in Mr. Dziekanski’s death will be a scathing indictment of one of those investigations.

The B.C. government already has a report in its hands that recommends independent civilian oversight. It comes from former Supreme Court justice William Davies, who recently looked into the death of homeless alcoholic Frank Paul, who died in December, 1988, after being dumped in an alley by Vancouver police.

Mr. Davies said police should stop investigating themselves because there is an inherent conflict of interest when they do. Paul Kennedy, head of the federal Commission for Public Complaints Against the RCMP, has recently come to the same conclusion.

If Mr. Braidwood ultimately adds his name to that list, the B.C. government will have no choice but to accept his recommendation. To do otherwise would provoke a public outcry the B.C. government can ill afford.

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