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Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Police complaints in British Columbia need fixing now

August 6, 2008
Times Colonist, Victoria

The police complaints process in B.C. is not working. People who feel they have been wronged by police cannot count on a proper investigation or a timely response.

That has been known at least since February 2007, when former appeal court justice Josiah Wood's report revealed major breakdowns in the process and urged speedy action to fix the system. Almost 18 months later, the government has failed to act on a single recommendation. Solicitor General John van Dongen says it is considering changes, but offers no timeline for action.

The government is failing the public and police officers by preserving a process that relies on flawed and inadequate investigations and allows complaints to drag on for years without resolution.

Consider two cases in Victoria.

On Sept. 10, 2005, a constable shot an unarmed man in the stomach during a struggle in Esquimalt. The shooting was investigated, as required under the act, by an officer from another department -- in this case, Port Moody's police chief. It took a full year for Crown counsel to decide no charges were warranted. It took another 11 months for the Victoria Police Department to schedule a disciplinary hearing. On the day before the hearing -- 28 months after the shooting -- the officer resigned.

Even then, the department refused to release information on the shooting until the B.C. police complaint commissioner pressured it. The officer, the Victoria Police Department revealed, had thought he was grabbing his Taser and instead pulled his gun and shot the man. (He recovered.)

On April 23, 2004, Thomas McKay was injured in Victoria police cells. His father believed police used excessive force, throwing his son to the concrete floor while his hands were cuffed behind his back. He received a serious head injury.

McKay's father filed a formal complaint four days after the incident with the Victoria department. It took 19 months for police to respond, saying they had investigated and found the officer had done nothing wrong.

The police complaint commissioner reviewed the report and found further investigation was required. Within three weeks he asked Victoria police to re-examine the case. It took the department another 10 months to respond, saying it had looked at the facts again and reached the same conclusion.

Police Complaint Commissioner Dirk Ryneveld then ordered a public hearing, which began last month -- more than four years after the event.

Delays are not the only problem. As part of his review, Wood audited the handling of 294 complaints against the 11 municipal police departments covered by the provincial policy. (RCMP detachments, even those providing municipal policing, do not accept the province's complaint process.)

Almost one in five complaints was not properly investigated, he found. In some cases, complaints that should have been upheld were dismissed.

And the more serious the complaint, the more likely the investigation was to be flawed. The audit found 38 per cent of complaints of excessive force were not properly investigated.

Last week, Ryneveld expressed his concerns with the government's failure to address long-standing problems with "urgently needed" reforms. The B.C. Civil Liberties Association and other advocacy groups announced they would boycott the police complaints process and instead support people with complaints in filing civil legal actions.

Van Dongen explained the inaction by saying the issues are complex. But Woods offered 91 specific recommendations. Government's job is to deal with complex challenges, not put them off for years.

We give police great responsibilities and great power over people's lives in recognition of the important, difficult and sometimes dangerous work they do on our behalf.

Those powers must be balanced by an effective review process when citizens feel they have been abused or mistreated. That is in the interest of police and the public.

That balance does not exist in British Columbia.

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