So far 32 cases have fallen within the B.C.’s Independent Investigative Office’s mandate, said chief civilian director Richard Rosenthal while on tour in Williams Lake last week.
“I remember on Sept. 9, 2012, I asked one of my team directors, can we do this because we could have a fatal officer involved shooting in Prince George tomorrow,” Rosenthal recalled.
On Sept. 10, the IIO was called to a fatal officer-involved shooting in Prince George. Twelve people went up to investigate that night.
The IIO has a specific mandate to investigate officer-involved incidents that result in serious harm or death.
Officers are defined as police officers, special constables, conservation officers, and sheriffs who are operating as special provincial constables going code three and transporting prisoners.
“Anyone who uses force during the course of their employment we investigate,” Rosenthal said.
From the beginning three goals were determined by the IIO.
First off, the office promised thorough, complete and fair investigations, which Rosenthal suggested should be a “given.”
The second goal was timeliness because in the past it has taken one to two years to resolve similar cases.
“I basically said we’re going to do this in months, not years, in weeks not months.”
The third goal was transparency through public reporting.
Rosenthal said when he arrived in Canada, the media advertised him as a “hard-nosed” American prosecutor who had arrived to “police the police.”
“The problem was, that the first time that I exonerated officers in a controversial incident that would all go away and suddenly it would be, ‘oh he got in bed with the police’ or the government ‘ushered him into getting along.’”
Through public reporting, Rosenthal said he can explain his decisions thoroughly.
So far the IIO has closed 11 cases.
Eight were done by public report, while some have been closed without public report because if the case goes to Crown and Crown doesn’t lay charges, then it is up to Crown to issue a report.
“The idea behind that is once I review an investigation I have to review it to determine whether or not an officer has committed a criminal offence,” Rosenthal explained.
“If I believe that he or she may have, then I must refer it to Crown and Crown maintains its independence to determine its conclusion.”
If Rosenthal determines an officer has not committed a criminal offence, then he can close the report.
Initially the IIO struggled with this and Rosenthal asked what would happen if he determined that an officer did commit a criminal offence but Crown determined it was not enough to lay charges.
“We decided that’s Crown’s decision, not mine, and Crown will need to explain themselves,” he said.
To date Rosenthal has referred five cases to Crown. Two have been closed by Crown with no charges laid.
One was a bar fight out of Creston and another was a motor vehicle incident out of Campbell River.
The other three are pending and include an officer involved shooting from Cranbrook that was referred two months ago, an officer involved shooting from New Westminster, and a use of force case out of Port Alberni.
“Unlike the normal police referral standard where police refer a case if they believe the charges should be laid,” Rosenthal said. “Mine’s a lower standard than that — mine is only if I consider an officer may have committed an offence.”
Often the IIO only performs the first step. Even if an officer did not commit a criminal offence, he or she may not have followed policy and procedure which means the agency may have to examine conduct, training and tactical issues.
“So the investigation may not be over, that’s what happened in Prince George,” Rosenthal said.
“I determined the officers involved did not commit a criminal offence but there were questions about decision making so the RCMP opened up an investigation as well.”
Presently the office, located in Surrey, has four teams of seven investigators and 22 support staff.
Teams are on call 24 hours a day.
Each team is on primary call one week a month and secondary call another week a month.
“We had a day where we had two calls in one day so both teams were out and we had to set up a third team on call,” Rosenthal recalled.
The office also has an affected persons investigator who ensures affected family is treated appropriately and given the right resources and information.
She’s assigned to all the teams, and two more investigators have been trained as back up.
In every case where there’s a need, the affected persons investigator will help families walk through the process.
“It’s been very effective because in the past there has been lots of criticism from families who felt as though they are being treated like criminals too,” Rosenthal said.
He’s also had an officer on the integrated homicide team tell him before the IIO was established, he was spending 75 per cent of his work centred on critical incident investigations.
“He told me he goes back to this group today and they are doing cold homicide investigations that he never had a chance to look at because they now have the resources to put into those cases.”
Originally Rosenthal was drawn to the job because he saw there was a political will to make the IIO a success.
The police in B.C. were involved, civil rights groups showed support and the government was willing to put resources into the office, he said.
He had fought entrenched police bureaucracies in the U.S., found it took a decade to get anywhere.
“I looked and saw that everyone was supportive and thought, oh wow.”