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Thursday, March 05, 2009

B.C. government revises police complaints process

March 4, 2009
CBC News

B.C. municipal police officers facing investigations by the complaint commissioner would no longer be able to escape discipline by simply retiring or resigning from the force, under proposed changes in the province's Police Act.

The officers will also be required to promptly co-operate with investigating officers or they can be charged with neglect of duty.

On Wednesday, Solicitor General John van Dongen introduced the legislation intended to strengthen the independent supervision of the Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner and make it easier for the public to file complaints against police.

Among the new measures are stiffer penalties: the maximum suspension will increase to 30 working days without pay, from five days.

Officers cannot be compelled to testify at hearings into their own conduct, but they will have to provide statements and submit to interviews by investigating officers within five days of a request, or risk being charged with neglect of duty.

Officers who have retired or resigned will have disciplinary notes placed in their service records if they are found guilty of wrongdoing.

The revised police complaint process, van Dongen said, will include assistance for complainants with disabilities and anyone who's reluctant to sign a written complaint.

He said the commissioner's office will oversee the handling of investigations and can order actions ranging from a probe to mediation, and continue even if a complaint is withdrawn.

In addition, external investigations will be mandatory when a person has died or been seriously injured while in police custody.

Van Dongen said the changes address recommendations by a provincial court judge who wrote a report two years ago about the police complaint process.

"It addresses or goes beyond nearly all of the recommendations in Judge Josiah Wood's independent report on the police complaint process and will better balance and protect the interests of everyone involved," he said.

Changes weaken role of watchdogs
But the changes to the Police Act received a mixed review from the B.C. Civil Liberties Association.

Acting executive director David Eby applauded the provision that would allow the police complaint commissioner to replace a head investigator he is not happy with, but he said there are still gaping holes.

"One is that police are still investigating themselves so people who are shocked and outraged about what's happening in the [Robert] Dziekanski [Taser shooting] matter.… That kind of situation where police are investigating themselves will continue," he told CBC News.

Eby also said watchdog groups are being shut out of the process.

Such organizations can no longer file a third-party complaint with the commission if a witness or someone directly affected by an incident has already filed a complaint of their own, he said.

Eby said that means his association could no longer file complaints about in-custody deaths, for example, to ensure an investigation is done.

He said the commissioner's office has until now disclosed information to the group about an investigation and its final outcome, but that will no longer happen under the proposed changes.

Transparency at risk
"There's no way to get the information out [to the media] unless the family member or the individual who's making the complaint decides to release the information," he said.

Eby also criticized the new mediation process, which requires a complainant to participate in an information process with the police officer against whom the complaint was filed.

He said that while the complainant can be represented by a lawyer, many people can't afford one.

Mike Farnworth, the NDP's critic for the Solicitor General's Ministry, said the proposed changes came up in the throne speech over a year ago and he's wondering why the government has announced the bill just before an election.

"Are they seriously intent on passing it, or is it just an announcement … just before an election?"

Farnworth said there are still two police complaint processes in the province — one for municipal police and the other for the RCMP —- but there needs to be just one approach.

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