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FOCUS ON Surrey’s IIO: Keeping the cops accountable

When police-involved death and serious injury occur, the Independent Investigations Team is on the case
Ron MacDonald is the IIO’s third chief civilian director to date, taking over the reigns on Oct. 24, 2017. (Photo: Tom Zytaruk)

Since the Surrey-based Independent Investigations Office opened shop on Sept. 10, 2012 it has scrutinized roughly 1,200 cases of serious harm or death in which police were involved, and 38 of those have been in Surrey.

Of those Surrey cases, 14 involved death and 24, serious harm.

The IIO operates out of Bing Thom’s Central City tower in Whalley and reports to B.C.’s attorney general, with an annual budget of $9.4 million and staff of 65.

Its most recent Surrey case involving fatalities concerns the March 29, 2019 hostage standoff in Whalley. It’s investigating what role police played in this tragedy, which saw roughly two dozen police vehicles, as well as an armoured vehicle, surround a home at a cul-de-sac near 132A Street and 100A Avenue.

Authorities have not released the names of the man and woman who died, but a GoFundMe campaign, which at this time of writing has raised $8,960 of its $15,000 goal to help cover funeral and other costs, identified the woman as Nona McEwan and her boyfriend as Randy Crosson.

The IIO information bulletin said the man was pronounced dead at the scene and the woman died at hospital. “The cause of the injuries to both persons are yet to be confirmed,” the bulletin indicated, but at the scene the IIO revealed that shots were fired by members of the Emergency Response Team.

“We’re not sure if the female was killed by shots, we’re still trying to determine what caused her injuries and what led to her death,” said Ron MacDonald, IIO’s chief. “We do know that police took shots but we don’t know if they’re the ones that caused the injuries to the male.”

That was a few hours after the standoff ended. Meantime, the Integrated Homicide Team is conducting a “concurrent” investigation with the IIO, Corporal Frank Jang told the Now-Leader, “because there’s two deaths involved.”

Asked if IHIT is involved because police might have shot the woman, Jang replied, “Well, no, I mean we’re there to conclusively determine the cause of death. It’s a police-involved shooting of the man, as I understand, so the IIO would be investigating that. We would be investigating the other person.”

So it’s not because maybe the woman was accidentally hit by a police bullet?

“No, I mean that’s part of the investigation but because there was two deaths, one believed to be a police-involved shooting, one is not, the two agencies are simultaneously involved. There’s two separate investigations happening.”

Was somebody else in the vicinity other than police officers and the deceased when this happened?

“I don’t know,” Jang said.

“IHIT is there to ensure that a full-some investigation into what caused their deaths and we’re working not together, obviously, because there’s two respective investigations running concurrently, but when it’s deemed appropriate that the two agencies have to communicate we certainly will do so and we have a very positive, professional working relationship with the IIO.”

Corporal Frank Jang, spokesman for IHIT. (Photo: Tom Zytaruk)

Asked if he can say conclusively that a police bullet didn’t hit the woman, Jang replied, “No, I mean that’s all part of the investigation that’s happening now. There will be updates coming forth from the IIO but all those details, the exact mechanism, entries, where the shots came from, that’s all going to be part of the investigation. I can’t comment further because it’s still ongoing.”

About half of the IIO’s investigators are former police officers, despite the IIO’s mandate to have an office staffed “entirely” by employees who’ve never served as police officers or with another law enforcement agency.

The IIO investigates on and off-duty police-related incidents involving death and serious harm. It doesn’t investigate complaints of misconduct – that’s the domain of the Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner in the case of municipal police, and the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission is responsible for investigating complaints lodged against the RCMP.

Generally the IIO won’t release the names of police officers it investigates. In the event a criminal charge is laid, the Criminal Justice Branch will.

If a case involving fatality becomes the subject of a coroner’s inquest, the officer’s name will be made public during the hearing.

MacDonald is the IIO’s third chief civilian director to date, taking over the reigns on Oct. 24, 2017. He is a lawyer by profession, having worked in the criminal justice system since 1985, serving as a defence lawyer and prosecutor. He was also the criminal law policy advisor for Nova Scotia’s Department of Justice and helped create the first sexual assault response team in his hometown of Antigonish.

“Sometimes people judge our effectiveness, or the success of these organizations, based on the number of charges but really, the success is based on the transparency that is brought to this,” he told the Now-Leader. “Sometimes people think that the way to judge the effectiveness of an organization such as ours is how many police officers get charged, and I would urge against that type of thinking.”

Ron MacDonald, chief civilian director of the IIO. (Photo: Tom Zytaruk)

MacDonald served in a similar role for six years as director of Nova Scotia’s Serious Incident Response Team (SiRT). He also served as president of the Nova Scotia Barristers’ Society in 2005-06, president of the Federal of Law Societies of Canada in 2010-11 and is also the recipient of prestigious awards including the National Heads of Prosecutions Humanitarian Award (2007), the Nova Scotia Barristers’ Society’s Distinguished Service Award in 2015 and that same year he was made a member of the Schulich School of Law at Dalhousie’s Bertha Wilson Society.

“We of course are called in to investigate based not on allegations of wrongdoing but based on the fact that there was a serious harm or a death, and the real goal of an organization such as ours, anywhere in the country, is more to ensure that there is an objective and independent, thorough investigation of that, and to ensure that the public then finds out what happened, that’s the true goal,” MacDonald said of the IIO’s function.

“It keeps everybody honest and accountable,” he explained. “So if the police have done nothing wrong, we ensure the public are told that and why we reached that conclusion. That’s the real benefit of the organization, except of course in situations where we find they may have done something wrong, we refer it to the Crown.”

Of Surrey’s 38 cases on the books, three of them involved Transit Police, one the Langley RCMP and the rest, the Surrey RCMP.

The most recent Transit Police case, dated March 15, 2017, involved serious harm and the case closed with no public report.

A Transit Police case involving death, dated Dec. 28, 2014, occurred in Whalley. The Transit Police shot Naverone Woods, 23, of Hazelton B.C., at the Safeway grocery store at 10355 King George Boulevard in Whalley, after he grabbed a knife, stabbed himself and advanced on police. He was pronounced dead at Royal Columbian Hospital, in the operating room.

The IIO concluded a Transit Police officer was not guilty of any crime when she shot the knife-wielding man dead but questioned why she and her partner were not equipped with a less lethal weapon, specifically a Taser. An autopsy found Woods stabbed himself 14 times and died of “stab and gunshot wounds to the right arm and torso.”

Another Transit Police case, dated July 31, 2014, occurred at the Surrey Central bus loop. The IIO concluded no wrongdoing by police and that the bus rider involved had died of “complications” from a “combined use of methamphetamine and heroin.”

READ ALSO: Transit Police have been in deadly Surrey situations before

The case involving the Langley RCMP concerning a death in Surrey, dated June 14, 2017, was closed without a public report.

The IIO has to date investigated 24 cases involving the Surrey RCMP and serious harm. Of those, eight were closed with no public report, three are open with investigations in progress, and eight were closed with a public report. One case ended with the acquittal of a Delta Police constable on a charge of careless use of a firearm related to an incident in Surrey on Nov. 7, 2013. In four other cases involving serious harm, charges were not approved.

Of the 14 cases the IIO has investigated in Surrey involving death, 11 concerned the Surrey RCMP.

These include the investigation in progress to do with the March 29 hostage taking. Otherwise one was closed (May 3, 2018), one was closed with no public report (Jan. 3, 2018), six were closed with a public report (May 7, 2018; March 19, 2018; Feb. 2, 2016; Jan. 17, 2014; Dec. 27, 2012; Dec. 21, 2012), one was closed after a referral to Crown (March 15, 2016), and one resulted in charges being approved by the Crown. This involved the July 18, 2015 shooting death of Hudson Brooks, 20, at the District 5 RCMP station on 152nd Street in South Surrey.

A trial date has yet to be set for Constable Elizabeth Cucheran, who is charged with aggravated assault and assault with a weapon.

READ ALSO: Still no trial date for officer charged in South Surrey man’s shooting death

READ ALSO: Surrey mom killed in hostage-taking remembered as ‘loving, sweet and kind-hearted’

How long do IIO investigations typically take?

“Well, that’s always the $64,000 question,” MacDonald said. “They take as long as they need to take, is the easy answer. The second easy answer is that we always attempt to complete them in as timely manner as possible, ensuring however that it’s done as completely and as thoroughly and as objectively as we have to.”

“What the real answer is always depends on the facts of every case. So that depends on us being able to complete our investigative work, which is obviously forensic work, canvassing, interviewing witnesses, examining all that evidence, analyzing the evidence, doing further investigations where necessary. But it also includes waiting for third parties to get back to us with their information and that can be a variety of different types of forensic testing. For example, it can be testing that may flow from an autopsy; it often will mean waiting for autopsy reports with specific causes of death and many of our investigations that take many months take that long because we need to wait for those type of third-party reports before we can complete them. So the bottom line is it’s impossible to put a specific time frame on it.”

As for how the IIO’s investigation into the March 29 deadly standoff is proceeding, MacDonald said the agency typically doesn’t like to provide public updates “because partial facts can be misleading and therefore we usually like to wait until we have all of the facts and have reached all of our conclusions.

“If we do not refer the matter to the Crown, we’ll issue a public report to the Crown which will be detailed. If we do refer the matter to the Crown, then obviously the Crown will be in charge of what facts will be released and usually that’s not until trial, if that were to go, I’m talking theoretically of course.”

Like police, the IIO is sometimes called on to notify a deceased person’s next of kin.

“We do not release the names of affected persons. In fact we don’t release the names of persons involved in our investigations unless there is a significant public interest which we interpret to mean there is a public safety interest or there’s a significant investigative need to release the name,” MacDonald said.

IIO officers speaking with Mountie at Surrey standoff. (Photo: Tom Zytaruk)

The IIO has three teams of 10 investigators. At least, that’s how it’s supposed to be. Currently it’s down seven investigators and its five-member forensic team is down one member.

“We were just given last year a budget bump to get up to the 30 mark and simply put, we’ve had difficulty,” MacDonald explains. “We’ve run two competitions since then and we’ve had difficulty filling all of those positions because we’re looking for a very specific set of skills and that doesn’t exist widely, necessarily, in the population. We do have a restriction currently that we can’t hire, for example, anyone who has worked as a police officer in B.C. in the last five years, so that restricts us. We can’t hire those who’ve had police backgrounds from other jurisdictions in Canada or other countries.”

To be hired as an IIO investigator you must have an investigative background of some sort.

“That’s what the statute says. We generally are looking for someone with a degree in a related field and five years of investigative experience,” MacDonald explained.

“For example, it could be someone who has worked in a regulatory agency in the government; motor vehicle, or a tax auditor. We’ve hired persons who’ve been insurance investigators for insurance companies, or within large companies, that type of thing. Persons who’ve had a legal or a law background, a lawyer background. That qualifies.”

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About the Author: Tom Zytaruk

I write unvarnished opinion columns and unbiased news reports for the Surrey Now-Leader.
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