Simple solution available
to police investigating police

Ian Mulgrew, Vancouver Sun, Nov. 30, 2009

British Columbia is in the midst of a legal crisis that needs to be addressed — the dysfunctional system of police investigating police when a fatality occurs.

We have all been sickened by the video of Robert Dziekanski’s death at Vancouver International Airport and the incredible testimony by RCMP officers at the public inquiry.

What outrages many of us, however, is that the death of the 40-year-old Polish immigrant at the hands of police and the incompetent handling of the investigation into the incident were not unique.

We have seen the same whitewashed press statements, the same drag-your-heels investigation by cops and the same lame response from the province’s Crown attorneys over and over again.

The manner in which the criminal justice system handles fatality cases involving police officers is driven by fear, favouritism or who knows what — anything but the principle that we are all equal in the eyes of the law.

Ask the families of Ian Bush, Kevin St. Arnaud, Jeff Berg, Orion Hutchinson or better yet, how about Albert Haczewski and Walter Hara?

Had any of these cases involved ordinary civilians, the Crown would have made charge approval decisions within a matter of hours, not months or years.

I wrote about the travesty surrounding Hutchinson’s death a week ago, but the deaths of Haczewski and Hara are equally horrendous.

There is no mystery about what happened Oct. 31, 2007, when these two 27-year-old friends died heading home.

A Mountie responding to a call hit their car in a Burnaby intersection.

No disputed facts, no criminals involved, no complicating motives.

The Mounties concluded their official investigation in January 2008 and on April 28, 2008, Const. Petina Kostiuk was formally charged with two counts of dangerous driving causing death.

Here is the RCMP’s description of the accident from their press release: “The traffic light was red for the officer. There were two male occupants in the vehicle on Royal Oak. Tragically, both these males died as a result of the injuries they sustained in the collision.”

“Tragically,” as the RCMP put it, the families still do not have closure and the official foot-dragging means it will be late next year or longer before the courts pronounce a verdict. The constable’s trial isn’t even scheduled to begin until late spring.

At the same time, the civil proceedings against the constable are being delayed, too, and continue to be postponed as the RCMP and the officer fight the case.

“It so confusing and frustrating!” complained Paula Haczewski, whose husband was killed. “Our family is very disappointed by the way the RCMP are dealing with our case.”

Who can blame her?

Maybe the officer should be forgiven because of the demands of the job, maybe the need to respond to an emergency is a mitigating circumstance.

But the stonewalling is an affront to the family and to the community’s sense of justice and what it expects from peace officers.

What’s worse, it prevents everyone from moving forward, be it the family in need of closure or the officer with a cloud over her judgment.

That this behaviour seems to have become the standard response by police and the criminal justice branch in B.C. is a clear indication we have a crisis.

Too many regular ordinary people are finding themselves confused and angry trying to understand the catastrophic loss of a loved one at the hands of police.

The solution is simple: an independent, civilian-led investigation whenever someone dies in an incident involving police and, in such cases, the appointment of independent prosecutors from the defence bar who do not regularly work with police.

Go to News and Comment page