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B.C.s media neglect some important problems
concerning police accountability
Dec. 7, 2010
While Ontario has Canadas best system of police oversight, B.C. has possibly Canadas worst. Part of the problem is our media. Ontario journalists often present well-informed reporting and robust commentary about police accountability. B.C.s media dont shrink from reporting police misconduct and criticizing the problems of police investigating each other. But, with few exceptions (for example here and here), theres no critical reporting or commentary about B.C.s heavily biased system of police oversight let alone the politicians and public officials responsible.
The Victoria Times Colonist actually slants its stories to portray the Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner in a positive light. But the rest of the mainstream media coverage suffers merely from neglect.
From the medias point of view, the issue lacks political drama. Both the BC Liberals and NDP support the police status quo so the issue provides none of the partisan conflict that journalists consider newsworthy.
Additionally, the mainstream media have granted the B.C. Civil Liberties Association a near-monopoly on critical comment about the issue. The BCCLA has proven itself an excellent critic of police misconduct and the problems inherent in cop-on-cop investigations. But the BCCLA will not criticize the Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner.
The OPCCs decisions, staff, hiring policy and police culture present a serious obstacle to police accountability. Thats especially true now that the B.C. government is talking about putting Thomas Braidwoods recommended civilian investigation agency under OPCC jurisdiction.
Heres a list of issues neglected by the B.C. media. Some of them have been reported in the Vancouver Sun and Georgia Straight articles mentioned above. A few other issues received very brief, unemphatic media attention. The rest havent been mentioned in the media at all, outside of my letters to newspapers.
Police complaint commissioner Stan T. Lowe fully supported the actions of the Dziekanski death squad.
Lowe was a Crown attorney and member of the Criminal Justice Branch executive management that unanimously decided to exonerate the four Mounties involved in Robert Dziekanskis Taser-related death. In December 2008 Lowe publicly announced that the five Taser shocks inflicted on Robert Dziekanski were reasonable and necessary. One week later a committee of five MLAs representing both BC Liberals and NDP unanimously appointed Lowe police complaint commissioner.
Both the BC Liberal government and the NDP opposition support the police status quo.
In October 2009 B.C.s B.C.s two elected political parties put aside their differences to unanimously pass Police Act amendments that changed nothing of substance. They did so despite heightened public concern about police accountability.
The OPCC has a firmly entrenched police culture.
The OPCC is staffed almost entirely by former police officers. The few exceptions are people with backgrounds closely connected to the police. The OPCC even hires cops directly from the police forces it supposedly oversees, including cops who have conducted highly dubious investigations that cleared their fellow officers of wrongdoing.
The OPCC continues to reinforce its police culture.
The OPCCs three most recently hired analysts are Ross Poulton, Rollie Woods and Tom Collins. Poulton is a former Saanich Police Professional Standards officer who conducted investigations that exonerated his fellow officers of misconduct. Woods did the same while heading the ethically-challenged Vancouver Police Professional Standards unit.
These cops are also well-connected with the people they supposedly oversee. Woods, for example, is a former colleague of Victoria police chief Jamie Graham, Abbotsford police chief Bob Rich, Vancouver police chief Jim Chu and many other Vancouver police officers.
Unlike almost everyone else at the OPCC, Collins isnt an ex-cop. The OPCC falsely claims he came from a civilian background. But as a former B.C. sheriff and peace officer who worked closely with the police, Collins helps maintain the OPCCs cop culture.
The OPCC most likely colluded with Vancouver police to cover up the VPD assault on a disabled woman.
Like the VPD, the OPCC kept the June 9, 2010 incident secret until six weeks later, when the BCCLA released surveillance video and the media picked up the story. It was only then that the VPD and OPCC each made public statements. After a few more days of media outrage the officer was transferred and an outside investigation was ordered. Theres no credible indication that any investigation took place prior to that. Yet the OPCC stated that it learned about the incident soon after it happened.
The VPD assault on a disabled woman also shows how police and the OPCC handle other cases.
It all depends whether an incident gets timely publicity, the attention of an influential group or caught on video. Otherwise police conduct a biased investigation which is rubber-stamped by the OPCC. Or both parties cover up the incident entirely.
Police complaint commissioner Stan Lowe is a statutory officer (an independent officer of the Legislative Assembly) and therefore doesnt answer to the provinces Ombudsperson or anyone else. In practice that immunity applies to his staff as well. There are sound reasons why independent officers are independent. But even on the surface, Lowe and his crew of ex-cops are the wrong people for such status. First-hand experience, moreover, shows the OPCC gets away with excusing, rationalizing and covering up misconduct and criminal actions by police. The few exceptions are cases that get timely publicity, support from an influential group or caught on video.
The lack of scrutiny is made worse by the fact that most details about cop-on-cop investigations are kept secret. Police reveal very little about their investigation to the complainant or victim. Stan Lowe and his crew of ex-cops follow the same policy. They do so deliberately. The Police Act allows them to provide full disclosure but they choose not to.
The BC Liberals are talking about putting Thomas Braidwoods recommended Independent Investigation Office under OPCC jurisdiction.
That would undermine Braidwoods intentions entirely. Braidwood recommended the IIO be an independent civilian investigation agency similar to Ontarios Special Investigations Unit and answerable to the provincial Ombudsperson. Braidwood was probably aware that it took a lengthy investigation by Ontarios Ombudsman to keep the SIU from becoming an apologist for the police. But in its June 18 media release the B.C. government replied that it might instead put the IIO under the jurisdiction of the OPCC, not the Ombudsperson. That would defeat Braidwoods intentions. The OPCC is much too close to the police and it answers to no one.
Even if the IIO were kept separate from Lowe and his crew, the OPCC would continue covering up for less serious cases. That can include problems of an ongoing nature and less serious assaults.
Update: The BC Liberals did undermine Braidwoods intentions.
(They did so with more than a little help from Braidwood himself.)
B.C.s new Independent Investigations Office falls far short of its supposed model, Ontarios Special Investigations Unit. Heres a summary of the IIOs problems, which B.C.s mainstream media have completely missed.
The IIO will not answer to the Ombudsperson, removing any real hope of transparency.
The IIOs transparency will be limited to an IIO monitor who will be able to review its investigations. But the IIO monitor will be appointed by the IIO director.
The IIO will answer to the Attorney General, leaving it open to political interference.
The IIO director wont be able to lay criminal charges against police, as Ontarios SIU director does. The IIO will simply present evidence to Crown attorneys, who have been notoriously reluctant to charge police.
Most disturbingly, B.C.s Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner, itself a product of police culture, will oversee the new agency.
Meanwhile police will continue to investigate police accused of misconduct and less serious injuries. Their investigations will continue to be reviewed by Stan Lowe and his crew of ex-cops at the OPCC.