Powerful police lobby
likes cops investigating cops

Allen Garr, Vancouver Courier, Jan. 29, 2010

Dr. John Butt was clearly annoyed. Butt is Alberta’s former chief coroner and the former chief medical officer for Nova Scotia. At the moment of his annoyance, Butt was taking part in a panel discussion last week on deaths that have occurred while people were in police custody. The object of his annoyance was B.C. Solicitor General Kash Heed.

In an audience made up of senior members of the RCMP, the Office of Police Complaint Commissioner, aboriginal leaders and advocates on the issue of in-custody deaths, neither Heed nor anyone from his office, which is responsible for policing, turned up.

The sponsor of the panel discussion was the B.C. Civil Liberties Association. The location was the VanCity Theatre.

Butt was joined on stage by three other panelists: the chair of the panel Dr. David MacAlister with Simon Fraser University’s department of criminology; expert in police accountability and in-custody deaths, lawyer Cameron Ward; and filmmaker Leonard Cunningham, an expert in aboriginal in-custody deaths.

Behind them was a floor-to-ceiling projection on the theatre’s screen, a mosaic of now familiar faces, some of the more prominent members of that tragic fraternity who have died in police custody: Frank Paul, Robert Knipstrom, Kevin St. Arnault [sic; should be Kevin St. Arnaud], Clayton Willy, Ian Bush and Robert Dziekanski.

Sitting in the front row and bearing witness were the mothers of St. Arnault and Bush.

In-custody deaths are no small matter. Over the past several years in B.C. we have averaged two per month.

For those of you who have followed this debate, you will know it always gets down to the same point. There can be no confidence in a system where police investigate themselves. The RCMP, more than any other police force, has been battered repeatedly in recent years over the incredulous conclusions their own investigations into these matters have produced.

Ward, who has represented a dozen families who have suffered in-custody deaths, told the audience that we can’t trust police nor can we trust the crown prosecutors who regularly work with police.

“The solution is really simple,” Ward pointed out. “We have to have a body of independent civilian investigators respond immediately.”

This is happening in Ontario. Ward also wants independent lawyers deciding if charges should be laid.

One point of clarification: What Ward is proposing should not be confused with what Heed and the Liberals in B.C. are promoting in their new police act, a beefed-up version of “civilian oversight.” They draw support for that position from a report they commissioned from former B.C. Court of Appeals Justice Josiah Wood. But it still means police investigate themselves, albeit with a civilian occasionally looking over their shoulders. Wood came to this recommendation even though he found at least one in five police investigations seriously flawed.

There has, in fact, been a seismic shift in RCMP thinking in the past few months thanks largely to the beating they’ve been taking from the public and the media. Assistant RCMP Commissioner Alastair MacIntyre confirmed that in comments he made before the panel discussion began. The Mounties will accept what ever the government decides, including independent civilian investigation.

If you are wondering why Heed and his government aren’t leaping at this, particularly given that they are in the midst of re-negotiating the province’s contract with the RCMP, MacAlister offered this opinion, one shared by his fellow panelists.

We are captives in this province of a “very powerful police lobby” which likes things the way they are. Ex-cop Kash Heed is aware of that just as his predecessor, ex-cop Rich Coleman, was.

While that persists, nothing will change the shameful incidents of in-custody deaths.