Category Archives: VPD

Death by Delay: Police Stonewall Investigations into Killer Cops

The notion of independent oversight and investigations of police in Canada is a myth. Police have numerous methods for interfering with and obstructing investigations, derailing and diverting them to ensure charges are never brought against officers who kill and the identities of killer cops remain hidden. Among the effective ways in which police forces, killer cops, and their colleagues have frustrated victims’ families and the public more broadly is through various delay tactics such as not releasing information, asking to see incident video before filing reports, and non-cooperation on all levels with investigators. And there is nothing investigative units can do about it within existing frameworks. As the saying goes, “justice delayed is justice denied” even in the state’s own terms  (but one should never expect the same system that police are part of to deliver anything resembling justice).

This has a real impact. In addition to leaving grieving loved ones desperate for information, it has the material legal impact of ensuring that charges cannot be brought in a timely manner. Thus trials cannot start in a timely fashion and, as a result, even when officers are charged their lawyers can get charges dropped on the basis of undue delay. A nice set up.

At this point investigative units have no mechanism to compel police forces and officers to cooperate in a meaningful manner with investigations. That is they have no legal mechanism to acquire needed information, including notes from involved officers, and no enforcement mechanism to hold recalcitrant officers to standards of cooperation. They, furthermore, have pursued no legal means to charge uncooperative officers or their managers.

 

Delay in British Columbia

As one example from British Columbia, the grieving family of Myles Gray has waited almost two years for even basic details and some answers about the killing of their loved one by police after being trapped in a backyard. They have not received any. Gray’s parents have not even been told how he died. Brutally they have only recently learned that the IIO’s work has been delayed because the officers involved are refusing to give any more statements (Lindsay 2017).

The Independent Investigations Office (IIO) is notoriously behind in its investigations taking unacceptable amounts of time to conclude reports, even by their own admission. The IIO currently has 12 open death or severe injury cases involving Vancouver police (Lindsay 2017).

The level of obstruction and non-cooperation exercised by the Vancouver Police Department and the IIO recently resulted in a legal challenge from the investigative body. In March of 2017 Bert Phipps, the IIO’s interim chief civilian director, filed a petition in BC Supreme Court to rule in the fatal shooting by police of Daniel Peter Rintoul in 2016. An incredible total of seven officers who witnessed the killing have refused to be interviewed by the IIO in that case. In that case the officers are making the ludicrous demand that they be allowed first to watch cellphone and security-camera video footage of the shooting before giving any statements.

Watching video ahead of time would clearly distort officers’ views of overall events, a position reinforced by virtually all available research on the matter. Psychological studies conclude that watching video of an incident may distort officers’ memories of events that took place off-camera (Lindsay 2017). Recognizing this, in 2016 the civilian heads of each investigative unit in Canada signed on to a model policy agreeing that police officers watching video prior to providing a statement would “almost inevitably influence a witness account and diminish its investigative value” (quoted in Lindsay 2017). Their policy recommends instead for a two-stage interview process, where witness officers may be allowed to watch video only after giving an initial statement and then clarify their evidence (Lindsay 2017).

The court process is itself a slow one that could stretch over years. A similar case involving a lack of cooperation by a Vancouver officer with the Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner was not resolved until 20 months after filing of the first petition. In that case, only decided in 2017, a judge ordered the constable to attend interviews with investigators (Lindsay 2017).

 

Situation Dire in Ontario

The situation involving investigations is dire in all of the larger provinces (where there are more cases of police lethal use of force) and particularly acute in Ontario and British Columbia. The Special Investigations Unit (SIU) in Ontario is the oldest such unit in the country and is viewed as the “gold standard” for such units, achieving even a global level of recognition. Yet its own record over the last few years is troubling. According to the unit’s annual report, ironically delivered nine months late, a mere 28 percent of cases wrapped by the SIU in 2015 were completed within 30 business days. That is a decline from the 33 per cent wrapped within the same time frame in 2014 (Toronto Star 2017). Those numbers are both a steep drop from the nearly three-quarters of cases wrapped within 30 days in 2012 and 2013. And it should be pointed out by those, like investigators in British Columbia who point to high case loads, 2012 and 2013 were years in which the SIU had comparable or significantly higher new case loads than in either 2014 or 2015 (Toronto Star 2017). The SIU has recently claimed that it will not even continue to achieve its internal goal of 30 days for investigations because of the difficulties faced in pursuing cases now. One can surmise that much of this difficulty stems from the obstruction and non-cooperation of police forces, associations, and officers.

As it stands there is no hard deadline for the SIU for completing investigations. They can take as long as they like. A report commissioned by the government in Ontario and undertaken by Michael Tulloch, a judge with Ontario’s appeal court, has initiated some limited rethinking of these issues. The Tulloch report recommends a set deadline for the SIU of 120 days. He further suggested that where that is not met the unit must report to the public at that point with additional reports every 60 days they go over from there. Tulloch also recommended ensuring that notes prepared by any officer who is the focus of an investigation be provided to the unit directly, before the SIU even gets involved in a case.

 

It is Already a Violation of Law but Stalling Officers are Never Charged

Perhaps the most significant recommendation on the issue of timeliness and responses from officers would  be a law allowing the SIU to charge an officer with a provincial offense for failure to co-operate with an investigation. In the words of the Tulloch report: “The legislation should include a provincial offence for failing to cooperate with an SIU investigation punishable by fine, imprisonment, or both” (quoted in Toronto Star 2017).

While police forces, associations, and officers will still hold tremendous power, and have numerous ways to engage in obstruction and harassment, this would provide some mechanism to encourage timely access to information and some level of accountability.

Richard Rosenthal, the former chief civilian director of the IIO in British Columbia, commends the Tulloch recommendation. In his words: “The legislation would be an added benefit to provide the IIO with the ability to administratively charge or even criminally charge a police officer for failure to cooperate, or obstruction” (quoted in Lindsay 2017). Rosenthal, though, notes that the police chief of each force already has a responsibility in this. According to Rosenthal: “But the reality is that today, the chief of police can order the officer to cooperate and should do so” (quoted in Lindsay 2017).

Indeed under British Columbia’s Police Act, officers must “cooperate fully” with IIO investigations. Yet emails filed as part of a 185-page affidavit in the court case show that the police are trying to obstruct even on the meaning of the word “cooperate.” According to the Vancouver police association Lawyer Kevin Woodall: “From the union perspective, cooperation is a two-way street where parties attempt to work through contentious issues in a reasoned, principled manner” (quoted in Lindsay 2017). In response IIO counsel Martin Allen replies: “Ah, Kevin, we do disagree about so much. The duty to cooperate … is obviously not some nebulous duty to ‘attempt to work through contentious issues in a reasonable, principled manner.’ It is a duty to ‘cooperate fully’ with an IIO investigator” (quoted in Lindsay 2017).

This view is echoed by the BC government.  According to Donna Sitter, a spokeswoman at the Justice Ministry, the responsibility of police officers is clear. In her words: “Our view is that the legislation is clear and requires police officers to cooperate fully with IIO investigations” (quoted in Lindsay 2017).

So the issue is one of police violations of the existing laws already. Yet, despite this, nothing is being done to hold obstructing officers, at any level, accountable legally. One might well ask why not. And find an answer in the nature of the state and state violence itself.

 

Conclusion

As of April 2017 the investigative units do not even release detailed reports to the public in cases where the involved officer is not charged. That may change in Ontario as the provincial Attorney General Yasir Naqvi promised to immediately make public all Special Investigations Unit (SIU) reports in cases where no officer faces charges. This announcement was made in response to the Tulloch report on police oversight.

Sadly, in attempting to ingratiate itself with police forces and officers the IIO has provided a record of its own futility. IIO communications director Marten Youssef has made the point of highlighting, as if to reassure killer cops, that while the agency has been notified of 1,250 police-involved incidents since its inception in 2012, only a few have met the agency’s mandate to investigate death or severe injury related to officers’ actions (Lindsay 2017). Of the 139 cases that the IIO has pursued and wrapped, only 65 were referred to Crown counsel for consideration, and only a miniscule total of 10 have ended in charges. Four of those did result in guilty pleas while two were stayed. Two ended in acquittals and another two are still pending (Lindsay 2017).

Regardless of timeline these are not numbers to suggest that grieving family members and friends of people killed by police will see anything resembling, justice or accountability. And this is not overly surprising. In the end the state is very competent in protecting the state, particularly its monopoly on violence.

 

Further Reading

Lindsay, Bethany. 2017. “Vancouver Cops, BC Investigations Agency Lock Horns over Cooperation.” Vancouver Sun. April 16. http://vancouversun.com/news/local-news/city-cops-b-c-agency-lock-horns-over-cooperation-as-ontario-mulls-jail-time-for-officers-who-wont-answer-questions

Toronto Star. 2017. “Speed Up Investigations by Police Watchdog: Editorial.” Toronto Star. April 17. https://www.thestar.com/opinion/editorials/2017/04/17/speed-up-investigations-by-police-watchdog-editorial.html

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Legal Petition Filed Against VPD Chief Adam Palmer and Seven Officers for Non-Cooperation in Investigation into Killing by Cops

The story of oversight of police forces and investigations into police harm to civilians in Canada has been consistently one of obstruction, intimidation, harassment, non-cooperation, and silencing by police toward investigative bodies and officials. This has been the case in every province that has an investigative body tasked with examining instances of police harm to civilians.

In British Columbia the situation has been so dire that the Independent Investigations Office (IIO) has had to take the extraordinary step of filing a legal petition against Vancouver Police Chief Adam Palmer and seven officers for not cooperating with the IIO investigation into the fatal police shooting of Daniel Peter Rintoul on November 10, 2016. This is not the only case that the IIO has been stonewalled on or otherwise faced non-cooperation from police forces in the province. The IIO has previously noted problems with police not following proper procedures or providing information in a timely manner.

Another case of the VPD killing a civilian under even more questionable circumstances in which the force has not provided information to the public or the victim’s family and has frustrated the IIO investigation involves the killing of Myles Gray in 2015. Officers involved in that killing, in which Gray was beaten to death while confined in a backyard, are not cooperating with the IIO. The Gary family has been forced to file suit against the city and police to find some answers.

Not surprisingly the police association, a reactionary force, has responded to the IIO complaints with attempts to discredit the investigative body and undermine its (already limited) work. Tom Stamatakis, president of the Vancouver Police Union and the BC Police Association has whined publicly about IIO interviews because, incredibly, officer could be incriminated (as if police have any qualms about their own interview techniques which are infinitely more forceful). Even more pathetic Stamatakis has complained publicly that the IIO investigators refer to investigations as murder investigations or homicide investigations. But the killing of a human, by cops or otherwise, is by simple definition a homicide. And there is little concern by Stamatakis that police use such terms in their investigations. Perhaps they will stop.

All of this is a continuation of police tactics of intimidation, harassment, obstruction, and interference with investigations by oversight bodies in Canadian contexts. It is one reason that there is no real independent oversight of and accountability for police in any province in Canada.


Family of Tony Du Sues City of Vancouver and Cop Who Killed Him

Police in Canada have a horrendous history of killing civilians dealing with mental health issues. Too often police interaction with someone experiencing mental illness or distress results in a quick deployment of often lethal force. The police solution to mental illness is death. And even more police can count on investigations units and prosecutors to use the victims’ mental health against them in deciding not to charge officers who kill quickly. Identities of officers not charge remain undisclosed leaving families without even the names (or ironically without knowledge of the personal histories, including past killings) of the officers who killed their loved ones. Often families of people killed by police in Canada are forced to file lawsuits simply to receive disclosure of basic information about the killing of their family members.

On Thursday, February 9, 2017, the family of Phuong Na Du, Tony Du, a Vancouver man shot and killed by police in November of 2014 launched a civil suit against the City of Vancouver and the Vancouver Police Department officer involved in the shooting. Pivot Legal, a local civil rights law group, announced the lawsuit right after the Crown prosecutor announced that the Vancouver police officer who killed Du would not be charged.

Tony Du experienced, who experienced schizophrenia, was killed by police after officers arrived on the scene at Knight Street near East 41st Street. Witnesses reported seeing the victim appearing distraught  and waving a two-by-four. Du was shot by one officer and hit with a bean bag round fired by another and died in hospital of the injuries inflicted by police. Police explained the decision to shoot by saying the man would not immediately comply with officers’ orders. Failure to immediately comply is too often viewed by police as an invitation to shoot and a license to kill. And investigations and prosecutors reinforce this arrogant view by refusing to bring charges against cops who kill under such circumstances.

The provincial oversight body, the Independent Investigations Office (which is not truly independent of police an trains through the police training center, the Justice Institute of British Columbia) investigated the killing and submitted its report to the Crown in the fall of 2016. That report disclosed that DU was shot and killed a mere 18 to 25 seconds after police arrived on the scene. This calls entirely into question, indeed refutes, the police claim that the victim had time to understand and respond to officers’ orders. This short time frame was neither long enough to start a conversation with Du nor enough time to assess his mental state or intentions. Pivot Legal lawyer Douglas King suggests that the police undertook instead “a very intense and rapid escalation” one that raises some “serious concerns” (quoted in CBC 2017).

Crown prosecutors are almost uniformly reluctant to charge officers given their need to work with police on cases and the perceived impact a lack of police cooperation could have on their career trajectory. So it was in no way surprising that the Criminal Justice Branch in British Columbia released a statement saying that the evidence gathered did not meet the criteria for approval of charges in connection with the police shooting death of Tony Du. Said the Crown, grimly, of the killer cop in this case: “He continued firing until the suspect was no longer a threat” (quoted in CBC 2017).

Indeed. And no charges result.

 

Further Reading

CBC. 2017. “Family of Mentally Ill Man Shot by Vancouver Police Sues City.” CBC News. February 9. http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/tony-du-vancouver-police-civil-suit-1.3975168


Vancouver Police Kill Man in East Vancouver (November 10, 2016)

Vancouver Police Department officers have killed a man at a Canadian Tire store in East Vancouver on the afternoon of November 10, 2016. A police officer shot and killed the man after two officers responded to a call at the Canadian Tire at Grandview Highway and Bentall Street. Police claim a robbery was in process when they arrived. A second man was taken into custody. Few details have yet been released.


IIO Report Documents Police Contempt for Oversight Agencies

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).

 

No Accountability

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.

 

Conclusion

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.

 

Further Reading

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


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


“Comply or Die” Policing: Unanswered Questions in the Police Killing of Myles Gray

How does an argument between a landscape professional and a careless resident watering the lawn during a drought and city water use restrictions end up with the concerned landscaper being killed by police? How is it that a young man, described as quiet and peaceful, comes to be viciously attacked by police officers using chemical weapons and is beaten so brutally that his grieving family has to have a closed casket funeral?

These fundamental questions remain to be answered in the case of the police killing of Myles Gray. This despite the pleas of family members for information. Other fundamental questions stand out with regard to police involved killings of civilians in British Columbia. So too do questions about the supposed investigations unit and civilian concerns with oversight of police in the province.

How is it that in a province in which there is a supposedly independent investigations unit legislatively tasked with investigating all cases in which police harm or kill a civilian there is no report years after the killing? And how is it that despite requirements that police immediately notify the Independent Investigations Office (IIO) when such occasions of force against civilians have occurred, and involved officers not communicate with one another, that there can be both a delay in notification and communications between involved officers, yet no officer is punished or in any way held accountable? And why, in British Columbia, are so many families of victims killed by police left with no answers and no insights into the events that left their loved ones dead at the hands of officers?

 

Suing for Answers in the Police Killing of Myles Gray

Six months after their son was killed by police, under mysterious, troubling, and still shrouded circumstances, in a backyard in Burnaby, the parents of 33 year old Myles Gray are still seeking answers. Among the few basic facts that are known about the killing of Myles Gray on the afternoon of August 13, 2015, is that officers encountered the young man after responding to a call regarding a disturbance on the 3600 block of South East Marine Drive in Vancouver. It is also known that that afternoon Myles Gray, who worked as a greenery supplier to local florist wholesalers, had argued with a woman who was watering her garden during drought restrictions. Beyond that questions abound.

Having received no insights into their son’s death at the hands of police they have been compelled to file a lawsuit against the Vancouver police and 11 of the force’s officers. This is the only means available to them to get an honest response from police about what happened when their son’s life was taken.

In addition to the Vancouver Police Department and the officers, the Grays, along with Myles Gray’s evergreen supply company, Graystone Enterprises Ltd, also name the City of Vancouver and the Vancouver Police Board in the lawsuit. The board is cited for “failing properly and effectively to educate, train and supervise the officers to appropriate professional standards” (quoted in Rankin 2016).

In the suit, Myles Gray’s parents, Margie and Mark Gray of Sechelt, allege that seven of those officers, still identified only as “John Does,” wrongfully killed their son by beating him to death. According to the claim, the police killed Myles Gray by using “grossly excessive force” and “inflicting massive physical trauma … with no valid, lawful reason” (quoted in Rankin 2016). The suit also alleges that officers had no lawful cause or authority to detain Myles Gray and that he was repeatedly beaten, even after he had been restrained. All officers involved have been and remain on active duty since the killing.

Margie Gray reports being told that her son died within minutes of the encounter with Vancouver officers. Her assessment is stark, and accurate: “This is ‘comply or die’ policing. Like, what was the rush to move in and kill him?” (quoted in Rankin 2016). Adds Mark Gray: “You know, they could have let him calm down …. like a person’s life is worth more than a (few) minutes, right?” (quoted in Rankin 2016). The family, and indeed many reasonably thinking people, can envision a broad range of alternative approaches that could have been taken that would not have left a young man beaten to death.

Grieving father Mark Gray is left with the terrible question: “Why was he killed off, just hunted down like a dog, killed like a dog, worse than a dog?” (quoted in Rankin 2016).

Families of almost all victims of people killed by police in Canada are provided with very little information about what the police did to their loved ones. They are almost never given the names of officers involved as these are not even made available to the general public. This is the case for Myles Gray’s parents. Their requests are straightforward and legitimate. Says Margie Gray: “I want answers. I want to know what happened that day. It’s the worst. It is horrific. And to know this went down at the hands of people you’re supposed to trust” (quoted in Rankin 2016).

 

What is Known

The day Myles Gray would be killed by police begins routinely enough. On a hot August day, the young greenery supplier was on a regular run of deliveries to flower wholesales in the area around Boundary Road and Marine Drive in Burnaby. Sometime around 2 pm, Gray wandered away from a loading bay and walked across a small overpass above Boundary Road, a dividing line between Burnaby and Vancouver. Coming down the overpass he found himself on the 3600 block of South East Marine Drive in Vancouver. A lover of the outdoors Myles Gray often went for walks during breaks in his delivery schedule. According to ahis father he left his keys, backpack, and identification inside the delivery van and headed off in the direction of a nearby park (Olivier 2016). Based on a map of the area it is believed that Myles Gray was heading toward Everett Crowley Park on the Vancouver side of Boundary Road. A worker at the florist supply store where Gray made his delivery saw him leaving with his headphones on. They waved at each other (Olivier 2016). According to his father: “There is a little park up there. He did the loop and was heading back. And I guess he saw this lady watering her grass” (quoted in Olivier 2016). It would prove to be a fatal encounter.

According to a neighborhood witness, Gray and a local woman ended up in an argument as she watered her garden under conditions of drought restrictions. At the time of the encounter, Metro Vancouver was under a Stage 3 restriction on water use and this included a complete ban on watering of lawns (Olivier 2016).

While it might not seem at all out of the ordinary for a greenery worker to be concerned about water usage on a lawn during a drought, for some reason police were called in this case. That fact raises real concerns about social disconnection, authoritarianism, and snitch tendencies within a fear culture, but these questions cannot be answered here.

What is clear is that 911 was called by the woman’s son and police responded (though again it might be asked why police treated an argument over lawn watering as a priority incident or why the person arguing against lawn watering during a drought was viewed as a perpetrator).

The woman involved has told reporters that she did indeed contact police after a verbal exchange with a man over her use of her water hose during a watering ban. She insists that she had never intended for anything bad to happen to him. It all began with a painful banality. She simply wanted the young man to go away (which it seems he was going to do on his own anyway). Upon finding out that the man had died through his encounter with police she says she was devastated (Olivier 2016). She says now: “I cried. Now when I talk about it, I get really angry” (quoted in Olivier 2016).

Upon encountering Gray the Vancouver police officers chase their presumed target across a Boundary Road overpass into Burnaby. Having cornered Gray in a residential yard police deploy the Orwellian named “chemical agents” and then “physical force” supposedly in an effort to restrain him. A short time after the encounter in the yard, and still an apparently short time after police first engaged him Gray was pronounced dead. It is also known that Myles Gray’s injuries were so severe that the funeral home suggested there not be an open casket funeral.

According to the lawsuit filed in BC Supreme Court, Gray was “alone, unarmed, dressed in shorts and not engaged in any criminal activity during his interactions with the seven officers” (quoted in Rankin 2016). He was killed in the secluded backyard of a house in the 8300 block of Joffre Avenue. This was a mere 10 minute walk from where the original complaint had been made to police (Olivier 2016).

Immediately after Myles Gray was killed his father Mark visited the backyard where his son was killed by police. The yard on Joffre Avenue backs into a steep ravine filled with blackberry bushes (Olivier 2016). The father believes his son was at that point cornered with nowhere to go. This raises further questions about why police could not have engaged him more cautiously and communicatively. Why did they quickly move to force? He could have posed no harm to the general public or bystanders. He could not have gotten away. Mark Gray says that when he visited the yard there were still signs of the struggle. He saw patches of blood, torn up grass, and a destroyed rhododendron bush (Olivier 2016). The thought of what happened is unbearable:

“I can’t get past what happened — I can’t move on. I just feel bad that I wasn’t there to help him. I just wish I was there to help him. I would have in a second died for my son. I still would love to be dead and he still been alive. The thought of him, thinking how he suffered…” (quoted in Olivier 2016)

According to a police news release issued after the killing, one of the few communications from any state authorities in this case, Vancouver police reported that their members responded to a call of a distraught man causing a disturbance. The police account reads in part:

“He [Gary] became agitated and additional officers were called to the scene. Attempts to subdue the man with chemical agents were unsuccessful. A physical altercation ensued, resulting in injuries to the man and six officers. Paramedics were called to attend to the man. He died at the scene.” (quoted in Rankin 2016)

None of this, including the timelines involved (when police were sent, when reinforcements were sent or arrived, when chemical agents were applied, what the altercation consisted of) has been confirmed by independent sources. No specific details on any of this have been provided publicly in any way.

Even more the lawsuit suggests interference by police with the investigation by the Independent Investigations Office in British Columbia, the unit charged with investigating cases in which civilians are injured or killed by police. The lawsuit alleges that “the police unlawfully impeded the investigation … by the Independent Investigations Office by failing to immediately notify the IIO of the killing” (quoted in Rankin 2016). Myles Gray’s parents allege that during the delay, “officers failed to preserve evidence” and “conferred among themselves” (quoted in Rankin 2016). These claims are similar to the case of police involved in the killing of Robert Dziekanski in which the officers responsible were found to have colluded in crafting their explanation of what happened (before evidence in a citizen video showed what really occurred). Ironically perhaps it was the inquiry into the Dziekanski killing that led to the formation of the provincial police oversight body in British Columbia.

 

Sounds of Silence: The Authorities (Do Not) Respond

Another thing that is known is that for six months authorities have remained silent on the cause or he conditions surrounding Myles Gray’s death. The blue wall of silence remains solidly in place in this case. The Vancouver Police Department only offer this: “It wouldn’t be appropriate for the VPD to comment on an ongoing IIO investigation or a pending civil process” (quoted in Rankin). For its part the BC Coroners Service claims that it cannot comment while the Independent Investigations Office (IIO) investigates the case. At the same time the IIO, through spokesperson Marten Youssef insists: “Our investigation in this critical incident is ongoing. We are currently waiting on third party reports” (quoted in Rankin 2016).

Incredibly, and this is a situation we have discussed previously in some detail, one of the main reasons put forward by the IIO for the ongoing delays in its investigations is the fact that police in British Columbia are harming and killing so many people over the last few years. As Youseff claims:

“The timeliness of our investigations has suffered recently, in large part, as the result of a rash of officer-involved shootings and police-involved fatalities throughout the province that began in September of 2014 and continued for the better part of a year (a total of 20 shootings and fatalities in a period of 12 months).” (quoted in Rankin 2016)

One might ask whether the delays in the face of growing police violence is related to the training hat IIO investigators receive from the Justice Institute of British Columbia, the training academy staffed by and geared toward police officers. One might also ask why provincial resources are not forthcoming given the apparent need to step up investigations of officers through the IIO?

In the face of this terrible situation the Gray family asks for de-escalation training to be improved within the Vancouver Police Department. Their wish is that changes will come, in part through the impetus of their lawsuit, so that their son’s death will not have been in vain.

Gray’s parents knew him as someone who was gentle and walked away from fights. If he was involved in some sort of difficulty on August 13 it was not in character. In fact there is still no evidence that suggests Myles Gray was either in a vulnerable state or suffering from some sort of mental health crisis (apart from any stress caused by being chased and attacked by police of course)a psychotic break. Neither is there any evidence to suggest that he was under the influence of any intoxicants. On the morning he died he was reported to be happy and in normal spirits according to his workers. While granting that something could have upset him later, though there is no evidence for this, the family and colleagues also note that it need not have led to his death: “Maybe he was having an emotional meltdown. He was probably in a vulnerable state. They pursued him for sure. What he needed probably was some compassion” (quoted in Rankin 2016).

And compassion is certainly what Myles Gray did not receive. The list of people in need of compassion who instead encounter police is a growing one in the Canadian context.

 

Comply or Die

As in numerous other cases in which several police encounter someone who is spatially contained with nowhere to go, and no way to harm bystanders, there are serious questions why police so quickly resort to lethal force. The mindset and practice of the police assert a framework in which the only option is “comply or die.” A purely authoritarian assertion. Recommendations have long been made about better training, including de-escalation training. Others have raised the possibility of mental health or health care professionals responding instead of or along with police.

These are questions that weigh on Mark Gray. He suggests: “They should definitely have better training. If there’s seven of them, one should have said, ‘Hey, let’s back off’ and treat this a little differently in how it went down. It could have gone down a lot differently. And Myles could have been alive today” (quoted in Rankin 2016).

This sentiment is echoed by Margie Gray. In her words:

“There needs to be a change in the way they deal with people. They need more training in their de-escalation skills. They just need more training, period … no one should have to live through what we’ve been living through. It’s a living hell. I do not want any family to ever have to go through what we’ve been going through.” (quoted in Rankin 2016)

She further adds: “Even getting the details are not going to bring my son back. But in going forward, hopefully there is going to be change. This cannot happen to anybody else. Because I feel like if this happened to our family, it can literally happen to anyone’s family” (quoted in Olivier 2016). Given the histories of police killings of civilians in Canada there is little reason for optimism that charges will be laid against any of the officers involved.

And no family should have to go through any of this. In too many cases police are deployed in cases for which they are neither prepared nor equipped. At the same time they interact in those situations, even where the behavior that brought the call is minor, on an absolutist basis pursuing the authoritarian and violent lines that have been ingrained in them (and which are the basis of their operations). With no leeway, or inclination, to soften the approach or act in a more nuanced way. Of course, real care, service, and protection of regular humans in need has never been the purpose or role of police in state capitalist contexts (or any other context for that matter).

 

Conclusion: Why Call the Cops Anyway?

From another, more critical, perspective one might question why state authorities are deployed in such circumstances at all. Clearly arguments over lawn care, and civic responsibilities during water shortages, should not result in calls to the state or to the deployment of armed forces. Larger questions remain about sociality and social engagement in anomic, detached, privatized societies. One of the problems with policing is that it breeds reliance or dependence on policing. People do not resolve social differences, even minor ones, through discussion or agreement to disagree, Instead the initial, almost reflexive, response is to call the cops. And unfortunately the cops are all too willing to oblige (it builds public relations and helps maintain or increase budgets after all). So-called “tough on crime” or broken windows approaches I the context of broader socio-political cultures of fear and panic only make things worse.

The sociologist Emile Durkheim suggested that in stratified societies with a broad division of labor, as in advanced capitalist modernity, are subject to conditions of anomie or a breakdown of shared norms, values, and beliefs (the conscience collective). Such societies are marked by a lack of trust among people and a tendency toward dependence on authorities. Under these conditions, and manipulable fear that accompanies them, people turn too readily to authorities and are too accepting of the actions taken by authorities however egregious they might be. Thus police are able to kill and get away with killing while remaining silent or worse obstructionist or disassembling in the face of questions from the loved ones of those whose lives have been taken.

As Mark Gray puts it: “I want my son back, but that’s never going to happen. It could be (that) other people will have their son killed, and it’s just not right the way they treat people. It’s just not right” (quoted in Ranking 2016).

 

Further Reading

Olivier, Cassidy. 2016. “The Day Myles Gray Died.” Vancouver Sun. March 24. http://vancouversun.com/news/local-news/the-day-myles-gray-died

Rankin, Eric. 2016. “Myles Gray’s Parents, Haunted by Alleged ‘Wrongful Killing,’ Sue VPD.” CBC Investigates. February 18. http://www.cbc.ca/beta/news/canada/british-columbia/myles-gray-violent-take-down-physical-altercation-burnaby-vpd-1.3446690