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Saturday, March 07, 2009

B.C. RCMP's crisis of confidence - Civilian oversight over police could help boost trust

March 7, 2009
Brian Hutchinson, National Post

It almost seems a lost notion now: public confidence in police. Especially in British Columbia, where the image of men and women behind the badge takes one drubbing after another.

A Vancouver police officer is stopped, for allegedly driving while drunk. A New Westminster constable is arrested, and is allegedly intoxicated, after an automobile accident. An RCMP officer allegedly blows over the limit and faces charges after a 21-year-old man on a motorcycle is mowed down and dies. One municipal police officer is charged with robbery and another with assault and possession of stolen property, after an allegedly violent and unprovoked encounter with a newspaper deliveryman.

All within the last six months. The Dziekanski incident overshadows them. Whatever the findings of the Braidwood inquiry, Mounties have already been discredited, not the least for allegedly trying to mislead homicide investigators after the death in custody of Polish traveller Robert Dziekanski. In its examination of circumstances that led to Mr. Dziekanski's death, the inquiry points to what some participating counsel are calling a police "cover-up" and a "cooked-up scheme."

Officers testifying over the past two weeks have denied they meant to deceive, but they have confessed to making erroneous notebook entries about their encounter with Mr. Dziekanski, and to making incorrect statements to homicide investigators in the hours after Mr. Dziekanski's death. The flawed portions of notes and statements greatly exaggerated the deceased's behaviour at Vancouver International Airport, and seemed meant to justify a tragically intemperate police response.

Some observers remain surprised at the alleged cover-up. Perhaps they are naive. Had it not been for video footage of the airport incident, shot by a civilian passerby and released--after some RCMP stalling -- to the media, the truth behind Mr. Dziekanski's death would not likely have been exposed. At least, not in public.

We'd still be none the wiser were it not for the Braidwood inquiry, now on pause for two weeks. It points to another problem with policing in Canada, besides training and technique: that is, police cannot be relied upon to adequately investigate their own.

Is there still any doubt that charges could have been brought against some or all of the officers involved in the Dziekanski fatality? In B. C., it is the Crown that determines whether or not to lay charges. In this case, it decided not to. But were prosecutors well informed by police?

Whatever the inquiry ultimately finds -- the commissioner, Thomas Braidwood, can make recommendations about police conduct but cannot place blame for Mr. Dziekanski's death-- it has already had impact. Feelings of betrayal have been aroused, again. Betrayal by police and a reporting system that did not bring them to account.

Remarkably, a comprehensive "public awareness survey" conducted for the province in 2006 found that fewer than nine percent of British Columbians thought police should not investigate themselves.

What's more, 55% of those surveyed expressed confidence in the present police complaint system, which allows police members to investigate allegations made by civilians against municipal officers in B. C.

But the survey was taken well before the latest spate of police arrests, and more than a year prior to the Dziekanski death in custody. While there is no new formal data, it seems likely that public opinion has shifted. So after delays, the province's police complaints system is being overhauled.

This week, B. C.'s Solicitor General and Public Safety minister John van Dongen announced legislative changes intended to make it easier for civilians to file police complaints in cases of alleged criminal activity, and in cases of professional misconduct.

The proposed changes, to B. C.'s Police Act, would also make "external investigations mandatory in cases involving the death or serious injury of a person in the care or custody of municipal police and in cases of complaints against police chiefs."

The amendments might help restore confidence lost in the past six months, says Robert Gordon, a former police officer and the director of Simon Fraser University's School of Criminology, in Burnaby, B. C. But he's somewhat skeptical. "A revamp could not do too much damage," he allows. "But there's not much left [to police credibility] that isn't damaged."

The changes don't go far enough, says provincial NDP public safety critic Mike Farnworth. He points out they apply only to B. C.'s municipal police forces, and not to the RCMP. Mounties, he notes, patrol most of the province outside of Greater Vancouver and southern Vancouver Island. But complaints directed at them are handled by the Commission for Public Complaints Against the RCMP, in Ottawa. (In November 2007, the commision announced it had initiated a complaint into the conduct of the four RCMP officers involved with Mr. Dziekanski. To date, no findings or conclusions have been identified by the commission).

There's nothing in the federal RCMP Act that prevents provincial police complaints bodies from receiving and investigating complaints; indeed, the Act specifically refers complainants to provincial authorities. In an interview yesterday, Mr. Van Dongen said that B. C. will instead work with Ottawa to "harmonize" the two separate complaints processes. In the future, for example, a person with an RCMP complaint may be able to file it with the provincial commission, which would then forward it to Ottawa.

Mr. van Dongen responded to criticism that the proposed changes to the province's police complaints process do not provide for enough civilian oversight. Investigations into alleged police misconduct will still be led by police officers, usually from separate municipalities.

Putting civilians into investigative roles would be impracticable, explained Mr. van Dongen. "We have to have people who are skilled at investigations and who can conduct them properly." He acknowledged a growing cynicism for internal police investigations; however, he said, there remains need for "a balance" between public and police involvement in the process. Civilians will continue to steer the provincial complaints commission, he noted, and if the proposed amendments are passed, staff will be given more abilities and tools to review the status of complaints investigations.

"If we don't have confidence in our police, we lose an important element of an effective democracy," the minister acknowledged. Hopefully, efforts to sustain that confidence are not too modest, nor too late.

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