An open letter to the
Union of British Columbia
Indian Chiefs and the
B.C. Civil Liberties Association

Police cover-ups are more common than you might realize.
But you’re uniquely positioned to address the problem

November 26, 2020

 

Postmedia stories from November 20 and 21 relate your organizations’ concern about deleted info from an external report on Vancouver police street checks. Journalist Dan Fumano quoted UBCIC vice-president Don Tom asking, “What good is a report reviewing police conduct if the very conduct under review is being omitted, hidden or ignored?” BCCLA executive director Harsha Walia was quoted as saying, “This looks like a coverup.”

As someone who’s followed police accountability for over a decade, I have information showing that police cover-ups have been much more widespread than you might realize and they’ve been taking place with the collusion of B.C.’s Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner. One of the incidents that have accidentally come to light smacks of contempt for natives. However, your two groups have a unique opportunity to help reform the system that allows these cover-ups.

The problem has been fostered by the lack of transparency and accountability granted to the OPCC by B.C.’s Police Act. In practice the agency answers to no one. In theory it answers to the legislature, but the legislature has called the OPCC to account just once, back in 2002, and that was largely due to allegations that then-commissioner Don Morrison was bullying staff.

The OPCC conducts almost all its work in secret. No one in any political party has shown any concern about this, least of all Solicitor General Mike Farnworth. Nor has any advocacy group ever addressed the problem. Other than blue-moon exceptions, B.C.’s media give the OPCC a free ride.

Despite the OPCC’s veil of secrecy, four cases have accidentally come to light that reveal the agency’s mode of operation. Three involve blatant cover-ups of serious police misconduct. The fourth case shows extraordinary OPCC leniency in the face of highly disturbing charges.

Of those four cases, three involved female victims. One victim was female, poor, disabled and native.

That involved Vancouver police officer Taylor Robinson. The others involved Victoria police chief Frank Elsner, District of Saanich officer Brent Wray and New Westminster officer Sukhwinder “Vinnie” Dosanjh. But the Robinson case stands out for the contemptuous nature of his violence and the blatant, ongoing collusion between the VPD and the OPCC. Although it dates back to 2010, it’s a textbook case of OPCC conduct that strongly suggests similar cover-ups have happened and can easily happen again.

I sent details of the Robinson case to the BCCLA on February 3, 2014, and to the UBCIC on June 18, 2018. This link leads to detailed info:

http://bcpolicecomplaints.org/bc_police_complaint_commissioner_stan_t_lowe_vancouver_police_coverup.html

Here’s a very brief summary:

Robinson inexplicably shoved a native woman with multiple sclerosis to the sidewalk on east Hastings Street. VPD Professional Standards learned about the incident soon afterward but covered it up. The OPCC found out about two weeks later, but joined the VPD cover-up. Only after media publicity took place, more than six weeks after Robinson’s actions and nearly four weeks after the OPCC found out, did the OPCC finally order an investigation. The OPCC has since lied to media about the case.

Again, I can substantiate that with detail.

Robinson was (very belatedly) punished for his actions. But the VPD Professional Standards officers who perpetrated the cover-up never faced reprisals. Neither did the OPCC officials, which included then-police complaint commissioner Stan Lowe and then-deputy commissioner Rollie Woods (a former head of VPD Professional Standards).

By taking part in this VPD cover-up, the OPCC sent police a tacit but clear message: The OPCC will condone this kind of misconduct and collude in cover-ups, provided the victim holds low social status—and maybe in particular, if the victim is native. As long as the OPCC remains free of transparency and accountability, that understanding holds firm.

The legislature’s current Special Committee on Reforming the Police Act gives heightened attention to native concerns. But there’s no indication the MLAs will address the OPCC’s secrecy and unaccountability, which perpetuate the chance of further Robinson-type incidents. In fact there are reasons to believe the MLAs will avoid the topic of transparency and accountability.

That’s been the case for a number of policing committees that the legislature has struck over the years. They give every appearance of being rigged. That seems apparent by the selective input, which excludes participation by anyone other than cops, ex-cops and carefully vetted community groups. The process further seems rigged by the consistently unanimous findings of MLAs from all parties, giving the impression they’re taking orders from party enforcers. It’s even likely that the committee reports are written by political flacks with little input from the MLAs themselves.

Last year’s all-party Special Committee to Review the Police Complaint Process was the most recent example. The current committee looks like a re-run. This is happening despite the involvement of two native MLAs, Liberal Ellis Ross and Green Adam Olsen.

As for the input from native groups, Farnworth might be expecting this year’s committee to hear a repeat of last year’s presentation from the First Nations Leadership Council. Speaking on behalf of three groups including the UBCIC, Boyd Peters addressed topics ranging from carding to genocide, but had nothing to say about the OPCC’s entrenched secrecy and immunity. Again, those undemocratic attributes allow further police/OPCC cover-ups like the Robinson example.

Lowe and Woods retired in high establishment esteem. In fact Olsen, along with four other MLAs on a 2018 committee, expressed “gratitude” to Lowe for his work. Olsen, Ross and three other MLAs granted Woods an uncritical and respectful hearing at the 2019 committee.

I had previously informed Olsen and Ross of the Robinson cover-up.

Given heightened concern about native issues, the UBCIC has the ability to raise these concerns with the current committee and insist on Police Act reform—real reform, not just sops to some ethnic groups that will leave further Robinson-style assaults covered up.

The BCCLA can complement the UBCIC through the media and probably directly with the committee. If the committee won’t include the BCCLA among its vetted participants, the BCCLA could draw media attention to that refusal.

This is the time for the BCCLA to finally take a stand on police issues. The organization has long been a phoney advocate. Numerous examples from previous BCCLA spokespersons include Jason Gratl and Robert Holmes separately lavishing undeserved praise on the Independent Investigations Office; Gratl and Holmes announcing to the media that B.C. had ended the practice of police investigating each other (a misconception still held by most B.C. journalists); David Eby refusing to criticize the OPCC; Eby consistently shifting the topic to mental illness when responding to media questions about police misconduct; and Josh Paterson’s refusal to speak out on the Robinson cover-up, of which Paterson was well aware.

Clearly the BCCLA has been little more than a career vehicle for opportunists with establishment ambitions. Now, under new leadership, this is the time for the BCCLA to finally show credibility on police issues.

The Pivot Legal Society, by the way, has lost any credibility on the subject. Former Pivot staffer Scott Bernstein brought the Robinson incident to the attention of VPD Professional Standards [*see footnote below], then stayed silent during the cover-up. Pivot’s Doug King actually praised Lowe for his handling of the case, knowing full well about Lowe’s cover-up.

It should be noted that current commissioner Clayton Pecknold has shown initiative in pursuing police accountability and seems to have distinguished himself from his predecessors Lowe, Morrison and Dirk Ryneveld. But given the OPCC’s secrecy, we don’t know whether Pecknold’s publicly known work masks more typical OPCC machinations behind the scenes. Moreover, there’s always the chance that he’ll face pressure to follow his predecessors’ example or that he’ll get replaced by someone more compliant.

B.C. needs other police reforms too. Among them, we need civilian investigation into all incidents, not just those involving death or serious injury. The province’s RCMP officers should come under this scrutiny too. Additionally, B.C. and Quebec remain the only two provinces that allow police to investigate each other on charges of sexual assault.[**]

But the current legislative committee looks like another cynical exercise in propping up the status quo. Farnworth has a long history of thwarting police accountability in government and opposition, and in legislature and committee. He knows or—given my efforts to contact him—has no excuse not to know about the Robinson cover-up, and the OPCC secrecy and unaccountability that allow similar cover-ups. Unless influential groups like yours take up the issue, the problem will continue.

 

Greg Klein
bcpolicecomplaints.org

*Correction: Pivot’s Scott Bernstein brought the Robinson incident to the OPCC, not the VPD. Then Bernstein stayed silent during the cover-up.

**This letter should also have mentioned the IIO’s need for resources to complete investigations in a timely manner.

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