The problem goes beyond
biased investigations

Thanks to favourable treatment
from prosecutors and courts,
cops walk free when civilians wouldn’t

Nov. 3, 2010

Just as the William Davies Commission has finally forced some B.C. prosecutors to testify, the Toronto Star has begun publishing an in-depth look at how Ontario police get favourable treatment from investigators, prosecutors and courts.

Starting today, four pillars of B.C.’s legal establishment will have to explain why they refused to lay charges against two Vancouver police officers in a 1998 case. The cops had Frank Paul, an unconscious drunk, dragged out of a jail cell, loaded into the back of a paddy wagon and dumped in an alley on a cold winter night. He died of hypothermia.

Meanwhile the Toronto Star has looked into 700 cases that were investigated by Ontario’s Special Investigations Unit. The reporters found deeply flawed investigations but, it should be emphasized, the cases reported so far happened before Ontario Ombudsman Andre Marin investigated the agency and Ian Scott took over as SIU director.

The Star’s findings show that biased investigations are only part of the problem.

“In the rare instance when the SIU has laid charges, one of every four officers sees the charges dropped before trial, many others are acquitted, or, as has happened at least 10 times, an officer is found guilty before a judge spares him jail time. Some guilty police officers walk out of court with their record wiped clean.”

Cops simply aren’t held to the same standards as civilians. Regardless of the evidence, many judges presume accused officers to be of good character and therefore innocent. Or their actions are considered the consequences of a dangerous job.

“Officers also enjoy stiff protection from the sturdy blue wall of their police force, insulation by scrappy lawyers working for unions with deep pockets, and typically a close working relationship with prosecutors,” the Star reported.

It’ll be interesting to hear how the B.C. prosecutors will explain — or try to evade explaining — their decision not to charge the two Vancouver officers. Vancouver police constable David Instant got a one-day suspension. Sergeant Russell Sanderson got two days.

The prosecutors strenuously avoided explanation, arguing before the courts that they’re immune from any kind of accountability. In July 2008 the B.C. Court of Appeal disagreed, ordering them to testify before Davies. B.C.’s attorney general then stepped in, appealing the decision to the Supreme Court of Canada. Last April the Supremes upheld the B.C. court decision and now, finally, the Davies inquiry will resume.

What might come out, of course, is the widely recognized fact that cops and prosecutors enjoy a chummy relationship. Only that can explain why Stan Lowe, a former Crown attorney involved in the decision to clear the Dziekanski death squad, was named B.C.’s police complaint commissioner. Not surprisingly, Lowe has publicly stated that Crown attorneys shouldn’t have to answer for their decisions.

Luckily for Lowe and his Criminal Justice Branch colleagues, they escaped scrutiny from the Thomas Braidwood Inquiry into Dziekanski’s death. Its terms of reference didn’t include their decision.

Lowe’s work with the Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner is likewise closed to scrutiny. As an independent officer of the legislature, Lowe answers to absolutely no one at all. In practice, that immunity also applies to the ex-cops on his staff.

Some of them, like Rollie Woods and Ross Poulton, come from police “professional standards” units where they conducted highly dubious cop-on-cop investigations, another area closed to public scrutiny. Their investigations were reviewed only by the OPCC, which now employs them.

As the Toronto Star series unfolds, maybe a major B.C. media outlet will find the money, resources and tenacity to take on a similar study. It’s a wide-open field. No independent source has ever undertaken such a study in B.C.

Just imagine all those skeletons lurking in all those closets.

Go to News and Comment page
Go to Stan Lowe and OPCC page