The problems of oversight of police in Canada have been consistently observed in every oversight agency in the country. Perhaps nowhere have these problems, and the limitations of institutional oversight structures in the Canadian context been more clearly revealed in a short period of time than in the example of the Independent Investigations Office (IIO) in British Columbia. Less than four years in existence the agency, founded in direct response to the infamous killing by police of Robert Dziekanski at Vancouver International Airport in 2007, in a case in which police lied about the killing until civilian video surfaced, has been beset by a range of troubles. These include a lack of capacity even to get police to file reports on time or refrain from watching news reports before filing reports, to the involvement of officers at the Justice Institute of British Columbia in training investigators to investigate police. All of this calls into question the independence, authority, and competence of the IIO and leaves victims and their families, as well as social commentators, questioning the organization.
Now the exiting director is, incredibly, calling for more, not less police involvement in and direction of the organization. The embattled director of the provincial oversight body, Richard Rosenthal, announced in September 2016 that he is leaving his position four months before his term ends, effective September 7. Rosenthal was appointed as the civilian director of the IIO with its founding in 2012. On his way out the door he has given a gift to police, and perhaps another nail in the IIO coffin as far as independence is concerned.
Curious Claims: Calling for More Cops
In particular Rosenthal has argued for greater discretion in the hiring of former police officers. Currently the IIO is restricted from hiring any person who has been a police force member in BC within the last five years. Rosenthal wants that restriction abolished (Rosenthal 2016). This has not prohibited the IIO from being trained by officers at the JIBC or hiring officers from outside the province. Without explanation, or regard for the implications of having officers investigating their friends and colleagues, Rosenthal suggests that former officers are the only means by which to provide training to civilians. This is a curious claim to say the least for someone who is leaving the IIO to study for his PhD in criminology. Surely there are many criminologists and forensic scientists who could train civilian investigators. Rosenthal’s claim speaks to the dependence on and over-regard for police exemplified in the IIO.
Rosenthal has also argued that the IIO director needs more discretion in choosing what cases to take to investigation. Right now the IIO mandate calls for investigation of all events in which death or serious injury is caused by a police officer. This means that the investigation delivers the assessment of officer culpability (though officers are virtually never found culpable or responsible regardless of the circumstances or evidence). More discretion would lead to cases being overlooked or not being pursued, even where an investigation might well be warranted. This is particularly so if Rosenthal’s other recommendation for more officer involvement in the agency were followed.
The issue of hiring former police to the supposedly civilian agency is not strictly academic. It has been a point of contention in the history of the IIO. Indeed, in 2015 the IIO was investigated for allegations of bullying and harassment related to the agency’s hiring of former officers (Meuse 2016). As a result 17 investigators and five non-investigative staff exited the IIO within only its first 28 months of operation (Meuse 2016).
Rosenthal as struggled to explain this. Upon leaving he has suggested:
“At the beginning, we were having challenges. We did not have alignment in vision and values of the organization. And unfortunately when you’re the leader of the organization, you take heat from people who don’t share that vision and who need to leave. [But] the good news is that now we are in a place where we have a strong executive that understands the importance of independence.” (quoted in Meuse 2016)
Yet this so-called independence has never been a hallmark of the IIO. Since the beginning of operations in 2012, the IIO has worked under a memorandum of understanding drafted in consultation with police chiefs from across British Columbia (Meuse 2016). Strangely, while suggesting a respect for independence Rosenthal has claimed that “the document has been excellent in allowing the IIO to work collaboratively with police forces” (Meuse 2016). The question always remains, “Can an independent body simultaneously be a collaborator?”
Comply or..Well, Nothing
One problem remains that there is no actual mechanism to compel police to respect IIO authority or act according to the needs and demands of the investigation rather than the interests of police forces and associations. As in other oversight agencies in Canada, police in BC are able to obstruct, ignore, interfere with, or disregard investigators and investigations. A recent IIO report itself has concluded that police routinely refuse to file reports in a timely manner after an incident of harm to civilians and often do so only after watching news reports. According to Rosenthal: “That’s not happening, on a systemic basis. It’s a huge problem as far as ensuring the integrity of investigations. We need the government to step up and create regulations in order to ensure that we’re able to do our job in an effective manner” (quoted in Meuse 2016).
None of this will be secured by having more police involved in the agency. Rosenthal’s statements, really an appeal for police involvement and the end of even limited “independence,” upon leaving should be a warning sign for all families and friends of victims who are seeking answers or some accountability and for all civilians in British Columbia. Particularly in a context in which police killings of civilians are increasing in the province.
Meuse, Matt. 2016. “IIO Director Richard Rosenthal Steps Down 4 Months Early.” CBC News. September 6. http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/richard-rosenthal-steps-down-1.3748640
Rosenthal, Richard. 2016. “Exclusive Op-Ed: Outgoing Head of B.C.’s Civilian-Led Police Watchdog Asks for More Support.” Terrace Standard. September 2. http://www.terracestandard.com/opinion/392187931.html