The problems with oversight of police, and investigations into police use of force against civilians are numerous and have been extensively documented and discussed within this project. Indeed even state bodies such as the Ombudsperson of Ontario have found, documented, and reported on the failings of police oversight agencies and practices. In addition to repeated counts of interference with and obstruction of investigations and harassment of investigators by officers and police associations, one of the recurring issues has been the lack of cooperation with investigations by officer and the withholding of required information by officers in investigations.
A new report by the Independent Investigations Office (IIO) of British Columbia, released publicly on August 31, 2016, highlights the dubious behavior of officers of the Vancouver Police Department (VPD) during an investigation into the shooting and killing of a man who reportedly stabbed several people on a downtown street. The IIO investigators specifically criticized police for failing to file timely written reports of critical incidents immediately after the incident occurred. In addition the report noted that officer accounts were tainted not only by delays but by their having watched television reports of the incident before filing their accounts. The IIO concluded that these problems were “widespread” among officer in British Columbia.
Officers Fail to Comply
The IIO noted the significance of timely accounts following police use of force. In the words of the IIO release: “Such reports are essential to ensure the integrity of criminal and administrative investigations and reviews of officer decisions to use deadly force or force likely to cause significant injury” (quoted in CBC News 2016). On the matter of police viewing of news media stories about the incident they were involved in the IIO concluded: “As such, the statements of these officers were impacted by evidence separate and apart from their own recollections and memories of the events” (quoted in CBC News 2016). In this case the IIO had to rely on the memories of civilian witnesses (who may or may not have felt intimidated by police).
It is notable that while the IIO report was highly critical of the actions of two officers involved in the killing and their failure to write up reports immediately and without media influence, the IIO cleared the officers of wrongdoing. This is an all too familiar contradiction in police oversight and shows the limits (virtual non-existence) of current oversight practices and agencies.
Significantly, the IIO investigators reported that the failure to file a timely report was not an isolated incident limited to the VPD. In fact it is identifiable practice in other forces, including, most notably, the RCMP, the force that provides provincial policing and municipal policing services in many municipalities across the province (in addition to being the federal force). According to the IIO report:
“The IIO has become aware of a pattern of problems with respect to subject officers involved in critical incidents in British Columbia failing to prepare timely duty to accounts or notes of their involvement in incidents. These problems have been identified with respect to multiple files involving not just the Vancouver Police Department, but also the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and two other municipal police agencies.” (quoted in CBC News 2016)
It is a problem of police oversight and investigations into police harm of civilians that there are few mechanisms to compel police to comply and act in the mannered required by the investigation. These could be, but are not, treated as chargeable offenses. Furthermore, it is a problem that the filing of reports in a timely manner, and under specified conditions are not viewed as part of the incident of harm in question but as separate, discreet moments. The result is that wrongdoing as identified in the IIO report are not considered when assessing whether or not police engaged in wrongdoing when harming someone. The filing of reports, etc. should be considered as part of the incident and considered when assessing the actions of police over the course of the incident of harm under consideration.
Incredibly, while not finding against the officers involved, the IIO has taken the atypical step of moving to file its own complaint with the Office of the Police Complaints Commissioner about police actions. There is little reason to believe that this step will result in anything approaching accountability for the officers involved. It is also telling that the IIO has not named the officers involved in such obstruction publicly. It is also perhaps ironic that forces that have adopted a “comply or die” approach to policing on a customary basis, resulting in much taking of civilian lives in the province, are so cavalier i.e. non-compliant) about complying with investigations when it affects them as respondents.
CBC News. 2016. “Investigation into Police Shooting Raises Concerns.” CBC News. August 31. http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/investigation-into-police-shooting-raises-concerns-1.3743227