Monthly Archives: February 2016

Independent Investigations?: The Failings of the IIO and Police Oversight in British Columbia

British Columbia is in the midst of a crisis involving police killings of civilians over the period of several years. The Independent Investigations Office, set up to address the use of lethal force by police in the province has in its few years of existence shown the perils and limitations of such would be oversight efforts. As in other cases issues of independence, and fortitude in the face of police backlash have come to the fore.

There are currently only five police oversight agencies in Canada. This is a small minority in a country with ten provinces and three territories. The first such oversight agency was established in Ontario, the country’s largest province, in 1990. Ontario’s Special Investigations Unit (SIU) is still viewed by many as the model such agency, nationally and, for some, globally, despite ongoing, well documented, structural limitations and continued interference and non-participation by police. The next oversight agency came almost a decade later when the Alberta Serious Incident Response Team (ASIRT) was established in 2008. The Nova Scotia Serious Incident Response Team was set up in 2012, the same year that the IIO was established in British Columbia. In 2013 Manitoba set up the Independent Investigation Unit of Manitoba.

The Independent Investigations Office in British Columbia was created in response to recommendations resulting from two public inquiries into police involved killings, including the infamous police killing of Robert Dziekanski in which police lied publicly about events of the killing before a civilian video appeared to show police claims to be bold lies. The mandate of the IIO is to probe all police-involved incidents that result in death or serious harm. The IIO currently consists of 34 investigators. This includes team directors, forensics staff, affected-persons liaisons, and public accountability staff.

The first few years of its existence has been rocky, to put it in its nicest possible light. The IIO began operations a year later than planned (Sept. 10, 2012) and over its first few years has suffered a range of problems and missteps. These include questions about its framework, low morale, high attrition, and ongoing concerns about how the office has investigated some of its cases. Allegations that chief civilian director Richard Rosenthal was harassing and bullying staff led to an investigation by the British Columbia government. Stunningly, 22 of the IIO’s 50 employees quit or were fired in the first two years (Saltman 2016).

The IIO staff recognize that the first few years have been a struggle and much work still needs to be done. The next chief civilian director of the IIO enters the position in 2017. According to current chief civilian director Richard Rosenthal: “We’re four years old. Hopefully we’re not sticking our fingers in electrical outlets, but we’re still very young, we’re still emerging, we’re still developing. Nobody can say what this organization is really going to look like 10 years from now” (quoted in Saltman 2016). Yet the newly developed directions in IIO training and practices raise real questions about its future as anything approaching an effective police oversight agency.

The IIO has appeared to capitulate to criticism over cases that have found against police officers. Those cases have been responded to by a great deal of public propaganda by police officers, agencies, and supporters. This media flak by police associated sources has been effective in putting the office on the defensive. Senior director of investigations, Patrick Kennedy suggests: “Civilian oversight is challenging because you have to look at it from a different perspective and a different paradigm” (quoted in Saltman 2016).

In response to police initiated criticisms the office has planned a new training program introduced in February 2016 involving the swearing in of seven new investigators. Under the new training program, investigators now complete a six- to eight-week induction and then spend three months training at the Justice Institute of B.C. Yet the Justice Institute is the police training institution in British Columbia. It is part of and central to policing in the province. Instructors are typically police officers, many of whom are currently active on the force. This is in no way independent training and it raises fundamental questions about investigators’ relationships with and commitments to their instructors, the institution, and the police forces in British Columbia. Investigators will work cases for 12 to 18 months before they can act as primary investigators. While the IIO states its hope that the training will help the organization move toward one day being completely staffed by civilians, this raining program largely undermines this stated hope. Notably the “independent” investigators have expressed satisfaction with the new arrangement.

The records related to the cases within the Independent Investigations Office are quite telling: There have been 156 cases investigated by the IIO since the office opened in September 2012. Forty-four cases remain open. There have been 112 cases that have been closed. Of those closed cases, 48 resulted in reports to Crown counsel and 64 resulted in public reports exonerating the officers involved. An improbably low number of seven cases have seen any charges approved by the Crown. Of these, two cases resulted in stays of proceedings, two resulted in pleas, one resulted in an acquittal, and two are pending. The office has probed 29 officer-involved shootings. In 17 cases, the shootings were fatal while the rest of them resulted in serious harm. Between September 2014 and September 2015 alone there were 20 fatalities that the IIO was called to investigate. Twelve of these involved shooting deaths of civilians by police (Saltman 2016).

Among the greatest current worries about the IIO has been the backlog of cases that has quickly built up in a short period of time. The office presently has 44 open cases, an incredible 10 of which are more than one year old. This has made things very difficult and painful for victims harmed by police and for families of victims killed by police. It has also put pressure on Crown prosecutors in making decisions about charges, already a rare circumstance in police involved killings. Incredibly, the IIO blames the backlog on the large increase in police involved killings (which the IIO was instituted to help reduce).

There have also been concerns about the limited mandate and limited definitions of police involved harms. Currently domestic violence and sexual assaults by police are not included within the IIO mandate for investigations.


Further Reading

Saltman, Jennifer. 2016. “B.C.’s Cop Watchdog Gets More Teeth: Dogged by Controversy, the IIO is Hiring More Investigators to Tackle Police Death Complaints.” The Province. February 21.

Speak No Evil: Surrey RCMP Refuse to Answer Questions about Killing of Hudson Brooks

It says plenty about the protections afforded police who kill civilians in Canada that months after a killing even minimal details about the event are not released to public or media. Officers involved are shielded from public scrutiny. Media are not allowed to report the issue in a manner consistent with an open and democratic system. Loved ones are left to ask painful questions. And live with excruciating silence from the agencies involved and responsible for providing answers. This serves to protect the system and allows police agencies time to reconstruct events, and their stories, to suit their own interests.

Seven months after Hudson Brooks, 20, was shot down in the street outside of an RCMP detachment in South Surrey, BC, the young man’s family has received no answers and few insights into how or why their loved one came to be a victim of police violence. This despite repeated requests made to the RCMP and the Independent Investigations Office (IIO), the province’s police oversight body for information. This despite public appeals for disclosure from the RCMP, IIO, and local politicians, including two marches involving hundreds of supporters.

What is known for sure is that Hudson Brooks was shot multiple times and killed by an RCMP officer or officers outside the force’s South Surrey detachment. The IIO, in one of its few informational statements on the killing, has also confirmed that only a police service weapon was recovered at the scene. No other weapons were present. This is crucial because RCMP, as is often the case in police killings of civilians, initially suggested in media reports that there had been an exchange of shots between Brooks and the RCMP resulting in a gunshot wound to one officer. It now appears that the officer’s injury was either self-inflicted or a result of friendly fire. Brooks was not even wearing a t-shirt at the time he was shot and killed. He had no weapon or place to hide it.

Later police tried to claim that Brooks was suicidal. As in other recent cases in BC the RCMP sought to disparage and blame the victim (as if being suicidal could legitimize police killing someone—only in that authoritarian culture of impunity). Brooks family and friends have been clear and consistent that the young man was happy, optimistic, with a bright future.

Incredibly, neither Surrey’s Mayor Linda Hepner nor local MLA (Member of Legislative Assembly) for Surrey-White Rock Gordon Hogg have contacted the Brooks family whether to provide information or even to offer condolences. In the words of Jennifer Brooks, Hudson Brooks’ mother: “Our son was shot down in the streets of Surrey—they haven’t reached out to me. Where is the compassion? A young man loses his life and we’re not contacted” (quoted in Holmes 2016). A stunning lack of compassion, and basic human decency, which would certainly not be the case in the event of a police officer being killed by a civilian.

Hudson Brooks’ mother has lived with indescribable pain since her son was killed by RCMP officers early in the morning on July 18, 2015. Following the February 2016 march commemorating her son, Jennifer Brooks asked: “Every moment of everyday, I wonder, I get up, first thing I think of is what happened to Hudson? How did this escalate to the point that lethal force was used on my son, my unarmed son?” (quoted in Beja 2016).
There is much for the RCMP to answer for. Jennifer Brooks needs to know. The RCMP need to answer: “I don’t know why my unarmed son was shot multiple times. Why was lethal force used on Hudson? Why was he shot five to seven times? The silence is killing me. I have no answers. It’s devastating” (quoted in Chan 2016).

Outrageously, the IIO points to an increase in officer-involved shootings, and the strain on resources they cause, as leading to a backlog of investigations that has left many families of victims of police violence seeking answers. According to Marten Youssef, spokesperson for the IIO: “Our timeliness has suffered, and that is partly due to a spike in officer-involved shootings and officer-involved fatalities” (quoted in Beja 2016). According to provincial records, between September 2014 and December 2015, there were 20 officer-involved fatalities, 12 were firearm-related, in British Columbia. That compares to one recorded fatal shooting by police in 2013 and three fatal shootings by police in 2012. The rise in killings of civilians by police in BC has led the IIO to hire more investigators to deal with the back-log. At public expense. Yet the activities of the IIO since their inception suggest that they remain largely toothless in holding killer cop accountable or in reigning in murderous forces in the province. In effect they offer no deterrence for killer cops and minimal real oversight.

Jennifer Brooks suggests that the increase in police-involved shootings over the previous year points to a pressing need for better training. In her view: “When there is someone in distress, the first thing to do is not shoot, not use lethal force” (quoted in Beja 2016). In the words of Hudson Brooks’ brother Beaudry: “Too many don’t have proper training and aren’t ready for the position they are in. It leads to things like this. It shouldn’t have happened” (quoted in Chan 2016).

Others would suggest that disarming the police in British Columbia might be a necessary step. Others call for ending the RCMP contracts in sub/urban centers like Surrey.

The silence and disengagement from public requests for answers is telling in the context of RCMP targeting of Surrey for increased policing and stated efforts toward community mobilization. Indeed the RCMP has long viewed Surrey as a site of force expansion and budgetary increase. They are banking on Surrey, and fear campaigns and moral panics targeting the city, in a context in which crime rates on the whole are declining consistently over years (with associated threats to police budgets). RCMP have established a public relations outreach officer in Surrey staffed by an officer who is also part of the RCMP campaign to gain a foothold in local communities by securing a faculty position in the local university, Kwantlen Polytechnic University, that enrolls the greatest proportion of Surrey post-secondary students. This has been central in efforts to recruit younger local residents while gaining access to informants, friends and family, in the neighborhoods of Surrey.

Yet when families ask for answers about the RCMP killing their children, nothing.


Further Reading

Beja, Tanya. 2016. “Rally Held for Man Fatally Shot by Surrey RCMP in 2015.” Global News. February 21.

Chan, Cheryl. 2016. “Family Still Seeks Answers in Fatal Surrey RCMP Shooting of 20-Year-Old Last July.” The Province. February 22.

Holmes, Tracy. 2016. “Our Leaders Haven’t Reached Out to Me: Mother.” Peace Arch News. February 23.

Victim of Police Shooting, David McQueen, Remembered by Family and Friends

On Sunday, January 24, 2016, David McQueen, quadriplegic and wheel-chair bound, was shot and killed by Calgary police. In the days following the shooting family and friends remembered and mourned the loss of a dedicated dad and friend with a great sense of humor who dealt with sever health problems, often alone and abandoned by public health services.

Days after McQueen’s killing by Calgary police, one of his two sons, Justin McQueen, remembered his father as a dedicated and loving father. He also noted that his dad had been suffering from extreme loneliness in the period preceding his being shot by police. Justin McQueen was three when his father suffered the spinal injury that left him quadriplegic.

Justin McQueen recalled his dad: “He was an awesome dad. He didn’t act as though he had the accident. He played sports, he took us fishing” (quoted in Wiebe 2016).

According to the son the health issues and effects of the injury eroded his father’s well-being over time. The situation degraded as his frustrations with unresponsive or underresponsive governements and public health care systems grew. Justin McQueen notes that his father was never provided with proper home care and his expressions of depression were ignored and untreated (Wiebe 2016). Justin McQueen recalls: “He was suffering. He was pretty much left in that house and screaming for help and nobody would help him” (quoted in Wiebe 2016).

Among McQueen’s closest friends was former NHL gaolie and longtime hockey broadcaster Kelly Hrudey. Hrudey sought out McQueen after reading a story about the Calgary father who was selling flowers from a cart to support his children after being paralyzed in a diving accident at Sikome Lake in 1994. McQueen’s son, Justin, remembers Hrudey helping his family, recalling: “Kelly was my dad’s best friend” (quoted in Ho 2016).

Hrudey remembers going to meet McQueen after reading his story: “I went down there to visit anonymously. I didn’t tell him who I am or what I do or anything. I just sat there and chatted with him. He had a great sense of humour, he loved to laugh, he was engaging” (quoted in Ho 2016). From there an ongoing friendship developed. The two often got together to chat over lunch.

McQueen’s existing frustrations with government, healthcare services, and police intensified following the death of his beloved companion and service dog, Bear, earlier this month. This left McQueen feeling abandoned and alone according to those who knew him. Recalled Justin McQueen: “It was his absolute best friend. It was his only best friend” (quoted in Wiebe 2016).

Upon hearing the news that McQueen had been shot and killed by police, Hrudey reflected on his friend’s suffering and the need for access for mental health supports: “It’s terrible. He was everything you wanted in a friend. Unfortunately, and we’ve seen it with a lot of people with mental health issues, it can be completely debilitating. That’s why we need to talk and find the help everybody needs” (quoted in Ho 2016).

Hrudey, whose daughter has dealt with mental health struggles, spoke of the need for social openness in addressing mental health: “I just know that when Dave was well and functioning in society, he was just so proud of what he was accomplishing. Those were the good days. It’s important we talk about mental health because Dave was more than what happened” (quoted in Ho 2016).

As is becoming all too frequent in the Canadian context, people struggling with mental health issues are subjected to often lethal intervention from police. Rather than supportive public health services, which are slow to come if at all, the response of police is quick and brutal. Of course an agency designed and organized for compliance and control, to putting down public signs of difference, are not at all suited to addressing mental health needs.

Further Reading

Ho, Clara. 2016. “Former NHL Star Says Mental Health Discussion Could Have Saved Friend Who Died in Police Shootout.” National Post. January 28.

Wiebe, Stephanie. 2016. “David McQueen’s Son Remembers Father after Fatal Standoff with Calgary Police.” CBC News. January 27.