Top police watchdog
fends off foes
Independent Investigations Office faces internal challenges
Sam Cooper, Vancouver Province, June 17, 2014
Richard Rosenthal, the civilian director of B.C.’s
Independent Investigation [sic] Office, is facing an
internal battle over his leadership.
Photo: Ward Perrin, PNG Files
B.C.’s new civilian police watchdog agency is so damaged by leadership problems, internal battles, and increasing staff turnover that its future is already in question.
According to interviews and confidential documents obtained by The Province, when the Independent Investigations Office launched in September 2012 it was ill-prepared and already deeply divided.
Investigators argued bitterly and may have broken key rules in the IIO’s first and most controversial investigation—the RCMP-involved fatal shooting of 40-year-old mentally ill soldier Greg Matters in Prince George.
On Monday, Richard Rosenthal, the IIO’s chief civilian director, said an administrative review of the Matters investigation was underway.
Confidential documents suggest that while the government is aware of serious problems at the IIO, facts uncovered in The Province’s investigation have not come up in review hearings being conducted by a special committee of B.C. MLAs—while the public is being left in the dark.
B.C. launched the Independent Investigations Office following a number of disturbing cases, including the RCMP-involved Tasering death of Robert Dziekanski in 2007. Rosenthal—an American prosecutor—was hired to take the helm.
Although Rosenthal’s credentials include setting up smaller police oversight agencies in Oregon and Colorado, his leadership style and background are the cause of major weaknesses in the IIO, according to documents and interviews.
Documents include a stunningly negative employee survey completed less than one year after the IIO launched, and several complaints recently made against Rosenthal have been filed with the Ministry of Justice and the Office of Police Complaints Commissioner.
As of June, the IIO has seen about 25 per cent of its 50-member team leave, including two top-tier investigators.
As a result of the August 2013 internal survey of 30 staff members, the organization identified “significant issues and concerns with high level leadership.” The survey further notes that “IIO directors are seen as remaining silent in the face of growing organizational dysfunction,” and there is “poor morale among staff, but issues raised are dismissed or ignored.”
The survey also notes a “developing schism” between civilian and expolice investigators and warns of the threat for “the investigations unit to be effectively hobbled by internal cultural wars occurring between ex-police investigators and the nonpolice investigators.”
The Province interviewed a number of sources aware of the survey results and confirmed these concerns.
After spending 15 years in the L.A. district attorney’s office prosecuting cases involving financial crime and public corruption, Rosenthal transitioned into police oversight. The move was based on his role in prosecuting the Rampart Scandal, which exposed significant rot within the LAPD. Corrupt gang cops planted guns and dope on street dealers, covered up “bad” shootings, and stole cocaine from evidence lockers.
In his glass-walled corner office 12 floors above central Surrey, Rosenthal prominently displays a mug shot of corrupt LAPD cop Rafael Pérez.
“That was the start of my career, in police oversight,” Rosenthal said during a December 2012 interview.
Rosenthal explained that as a young lawyer he quickly gravitated toward white-collar crime and “holding the most powerful to account,” while most of the other law grads were interested in “blood and guts” street crime. Rosenthal noted that a key event in his career was withstanding criticism from some quarters after he prosecuted a corrupt judge who went on to commit suicide.
Sources from the IIO say there is eye-rolling and even disgust at what is seen as Rosenthal’s “bragging” about his career in the United States.
Others point to an arrogant personality prone to anger and shouting.
A source, still employed with the IIO, said a number of dedicated employees are “on the cusp of breaking free” of the director.
In an interview, Rosenthal said he understands that many view him as a “maverick” and a forceful personality. Acknowledging the negative survey results in 2013, Rosenthal said that he and other managers have received “executive coaching.”
According to Rosenthal, the IIO’s problems are not unique to similar startups, and mostly are the result of the challenges of bringing police and civilian background employees together.
Regarding complaints against his management style including “harassment and bullying” that are revealed in documents and interviews, Rosenthal said for privacy reasons he can’t speak to specific incidents.
“What I can say, is that we’ve all grown in the last year ... all of our leadership styles are changing and developing,” Rosenthal said. “But please don’t take that to mean I am admitting I have been bullying or harassing, or anything like that.”
Sources alleged that Rosenthal has an unfair perception of police officers in general, and RCMP officers in particular.
Rosenthal called the allegation of bias “so false that it is almost ridiculous.”
One of the documents obtained by The Province which alleges Rosenthal’s “bias” against the RCMP contains a story that was known to sources and is also known by B.C.’s government, sources say.
The document says that in IIO offices in late 2013, Rosenthal told some people about injuring his back while trying to kill a rat on his property.
Rosenthal’s “punchline” was “it must have been an RCMP rat,” according to the complaint.
Rosenthal acknowledged that the RCMP comment occurred, but said it should not be blown out of proportion or taken as a reflection of his view of RCMP officers.
“It was a joke that was told in a group meeting, when I mentioned my back had gone out because I was having a conflict with a rat,” Rosenthal explained.
“And someone said ‘Oh maybe it was an RCMP rat,’ and I repeated that statement to others in the office, in jest.”
Some sources said they felt Rosenthal got off on the wrong foot in his first meeting with the Vancouver Police Department. To the embarrassment of IIO members, he allegedly told the gathered officers “there is a new sheriff in town.”
Rosenthal said he never has uttered that comment.
“I never portrayed it that way, because I don’t think that is appropriate,” Rosenthal said. “But I definitely have heard other people say it.”
If the IIO is developing signs of an inferiority complex in comparison to other B.C. agencies, as employee surveys suggest, then the internal cases that have been turned over to the Office of Police Complaints Commissioner are not helping, according to sources.
In one example, investigators were probed because they had allowed a witness to smoke a cigarette before giving a statement, sources said.
But another alleged incident revealed in documents shows that the IIO may be prone to harassment problems that plague police forces as well.
An investigator was suspended for two weeks due to the allegations of a woman, documents say.
Rosenthal told The Province he cannot comment on any internal or external discipline investigations involving the IIO.
As the Denver Post reported in December 2011, police officers in that city were eager to see Rosenthal depart for B.C. Police unions in Denver called for Rosenthal’s ouster, accusing him of overstepping his boundaries.
The Denver Post noted that compared with a budget of $650,000 in Denver, at the IIO with its budget of $10 million, Rosenthal would have “considerably more authority” and resources under his command.
“I’m in charge of criminal investigations of all officer-involved use of force resulting in death or serious injury ... it’s a tremendous opportunity,” Rosenthal was quoted telling a Denver Post reporter. The Province asked Rosenthal if history is repeating in B.C. Does he believe that an entrenched and defensive “police culture” is out to get him because of his reputation, as he describes it, to “hold police officers to account?” “I would not agree that police culture has come to bite me in the ass, but I would say that culture eats strategy for breakfast,” Rosenthal said.
“Anyone who thinks this type of organization will not have challenges, and ‘it’s the leader, cut the head off and everything will be fine’—they don’t understand organizational culture,” Rosenthal said. Rosenthal said Dr. Richard Brown, a senior workforce adviser with the Ministry of Justice, is helping with management and team-building at the IIO.
When The Province contacted Brown, through a government spokesperson, he indicated he was not “comfortable” with an interview for this story.
On Wednesday, The Province outlines accusations made against Richard Rosenthal by the lead IIO investigator in the Greg Matters case. [Click here to see that story.]