No Oversight, No Accountability: Problems of Supposedly Independent Investigations of Police

Too often people in hopes for reform of policing, or for increased accountability of police, on the creation of supposedly independent investigation or oversight agencies. These institutions are often held out as some sort of panacea for problems of police brutality and crime. To be sure such agencies can represent an improvement over the dubious situation that exists in many provinces in Canada in which police violence against civilians, including killings of civilians, is only “investigated” by their colleagues in other forces, often within the same province or jurisdiction. At the same time the evidence over years of operation of independent investigation units, in provinces including Ontario, Alberta, and Manitoba, shows that such units are never truly independent from police agencies and furthermore they are hampered by a range of issues from underfunding and lack of resources, to interference, obstruction, harassment and hostility from police, and few if any means to address uncooperative and non-compliant behavior among officers. Such institutions are also set upon by police associations and law and order police-friendly politicians alike.

The situations of non-autonomy, interference and intimidation, and lack of mechanisms for accountability or compliance with regard to supposedly independent investigations of police suggest that such agencies rather than offering real accountability for policing provide more of a cover for police operations, providing the public a false sense of integrity, oversight, or justice (a final line of community quality control). Indeed it is a misnomer to speak of these agencies as oversight agencies precisely because they have no authority over police and do nothing about day to day operations, governance, or practices of policing. In the end the independent investigations units can only make recommendations to the Crown, with decisions to proceed with charges rarely coming from police friendly and collaborative prosecutors concerned with career interests and working relationships.

In practice investigations units are plagued by lack of resources, reliance on police and police institutions for training, and absence of mechanisms to ensure cooperation or compliance from police. In many cases investigations take too long and result in little more than a reproduction of police excuses.

 

The IIO in BC

The Independent Investigations Office (IIO) in British Columbia was, like other such units, received by much public anticipation and hopefulness. It would replace an unacceptable situation in the province in which police investigated police for police acts that resulted in harm to civilians. Since its founding in 2012, however, it has reproduced many of the problems experienced by other independent investigation units.

The office itself had its origins in the brutal killing by police of Robert Dziekanski, a traveler from Poland who was assaulted by several RCMP officers, tasered multiple times, and killed in the Vancouver International Airport (YVR). In the days immediately following the killing the RCMP made a number of public statements in which they blatantly lied about the circumstances of the killing, distorting what happened and pursuing a character assassination of the victim who they falsely described as drunk and aggressive (he was neither). The RCMP manipulation of the case would be undone when a witness brought forward a video recording of the encounter with police showing the RCMP story to be a fabrication (Dziekanski was retreating and compliant when police inexplicably tasered him repeatedly and jumped him). This video by Paul Pritchard, would become perhaps the most famous and significant piece of civilian journalism involving police violence in Canadian history. A public inquiry into the RCMP killing of Robert Dziekanski, and further evidence of officer collusion and lying, would lead to the creation of the IIO (lead officer Monty Robinson and one other officer involved in the killing, Kwesi Millington, would be found guilty of perjury).

Yet several years into its operations the IIO has become another symbol of disgraceful policing related practices in the province. It has been plagued by personal turnover, complaints by workers against administrators, and concerns about connections with the Justice Institute of British Columbia, which trains IIO members but is simultaneously the police training academy for officers in the province and which employs active officers as instructors.

Among the issues that have received the most public attention and criticism has been the significant delay in completing investigations. The IIO is routinely taking up to 18 months to complete its investigations into police involved deaths and injuries of civilians, with concerns that these are moving toward two year completion times.

These concerns were recently heightened when the IIO reported that the investigation into a police killing of a mother and son, Shirley Williams, 77, and Jovan Williams, 39, in the small town of Granisle on April 21, 2016, will again take approximately 18 months.

Pivot Legal Society, a Vancouver-based civil rights law group, has raised concerns about IIO practice and the great length of delays in investigation reporting. Pivot is currently awaiting the conclusion of several IIO investigations, including the killing of Tony Du in 2014, who was shot and killed by the Vancouver Police Department. That case is now getting close to 18 months without a report. Other outstanding cases which are now coming near 18 months with no IIO report are those involving the police shootings of Peter de Groot in Slocan, BC and Naverone Woods, who was killed in Surrey, BC. According to Pivot lawyer Douglas King:

“There is a limitation period of two years to start an action in most cases now, and people who are directly involved in these incidents, and families who have been affected, that’s often the deadline where they have to decide if they’re going to take action against a police department. 18 months is truly unacceptable, two years would be a bit of a disaster, to be perfectly honest. It would have severe impacts on the rest of the legal system.” (quoted in Britten 2016)

In addition to the impacts on the system and the issue of killer cops being active on their force, there is also the issue of addressing family needs and concerns. As King suggests: “It’s absolutely brutal, especially for the families of people killed by police, and for the officers themselves, to have to wait that long,” (quoted in Britten 2016).

The IIO has little to offer in the way of an adequate explanation for the numerous roubles plaguing the agency. Incredibly they have pointed to the sheer number of police involved killings of civilians in the province over the last few years. But that is what they are supposed to be addressing. According to IIO spokesperson Marten Youseff:

“An officer-involved fatality is equivalent to a homicide in the level of rigour that’s required. We rely on third-party reports. We don’t have our own forensic laboratory … and sometimes those reports take an exceeding amount of time. We’re definitely not proud of our timeliness, and we’re doing everything we can to expedite this process.” (quoted in Britten 2016)

Pivot Legal Society is having a hard time accepting this. Douglas King believes that some of the delays in the IIO are related to internal problems within the institution itself. In his opinion: “If the only thing holding up these investigations is a third-party report, then we really need to start talking to the provincial government about how that can be fixed.  If it’s a problem with internal issues with the IIO, then certainly the public has an expectation that the IIO should fix those” (quoted in Britten 2016).

 

Conclusion

Yet in numerous other cases of supposed police oversight agencies, including ones with longer histories and opportunities for correction than the IIO such as the Special Investigations Unit (SIU) in Ontario, the evidence shows that these problems are endemic to police oversight and cannot simply be reformed. They certainly cannot be addressed by training that includes active officers and/or institutions that maintain official training relations with officers. They also cannot be reformed through an addition of resources, including more investigators. Official reports, such as the Ombudsperson’s report in Ontario have noted the persistence by police forces of harassment, obstruction, uncooperative behavior, disruption and interference, and outright insolence and contempt shown by officers toward investigators and the investigations process. Until police are subject to consequences and punishment, including criminal consequences, for failing to comply with investigations or to follow processes without obstruction there will be no fulsome police oversight, or investigation that anyone can have any confidence in. Beyond this it is virtually impossible to carry out any truly independent, autonomous oversight of or investigation into police when they control their own crime scenes.

More than this, of course, is the lager issue of policing and the role of police within class stratified societies. The institution of policing is inherently political and police forces exert tremendous political pressure on governments and “regulators” at all levels. All of this occurs in a context in which police have been designed and developed as instruments of social war and the defense of status quo relations (which by definition will be enforced through often lethal violence). The only way to ensure public confidence and safety would be a dismantling of policing and rearrangement of social resources to support broader social services (mental health supports, community resources, social hosing, safe use sites, etc.).

 

Further Reading

Britten, Liam. 2016. “IIO Investigations Taking Too Long at 18 Months, Says Critic.” CBC News. May 13. http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/iio-investigation-delays-1.3580472

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