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.
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. http://www.theprovince.com/news/watchdog+gets+more+teeth/11734645/story.html