New police watchdog ready to go

B.C.'s new police oversight office is officially in operation

U.S. lawyer Richard Rosenthal

B.C.’s new police oversight office is officially in operation, ready to take over investigations of incidents involving police that result in serious injury or death.

Former U.S. prosecutor Richard Rosenthal was hired last year for the new office, after establishing similar services in Denver and Portland.

Rosenthal told a news conference Monday he has hired 30 of 36 investigators, divided into four teams, who are now on call to oversee investigation of any major incident involving police in the province. About half of those investigators are former police, none of whom previously worked in B.C.

Rosenthal and Justice Minister Shirley Bond said police experience is required, because the teams will need to secure crime scenes, interview police and other witnesses, and investigate incidents involving off-duty police officers, including homicides.

B.C.’s Independent Investigations Office (IIO) is the fourth of its kind in Canada, and has the largest civilian presence of any in the world, Rosenthal said.

The B.C. government committed to a civilian-led agency after a string of incidents involving RCMP and city police forces. The office was recommended by inquiries into the 2007 death of Polish immigrant Robert Dziekanski at Vancouver airport, and Frank Paul, who was removed from the Vancouver Police drunk tank in 1998 and left unconscious in an alley.

The 2005 gunshot death of Ian Bush at the RCMP detachment in Houston, B.C. was another case that pushed the B.C. government to end the practice of police incidents being investigated by other police forces. The independent office will also bring B.C. RCMP officers under civilian oversight.

Bond said B.C. police agencies asked for independent oversight after police-led investigations in the Paul and Dziekanski cases eroded public support.

Rosenthal said he intends to make reports public, whether or not the IIO recommends charges against police officers. Final decisions on charges are made by a Crown prosecutor, as with any other B.C. criminal case.

The IIO expects to deal with about 100 cases involving death or serious injury in an average year. The office has a budget of about $10 million a year, working out of headquarters in Surrey.

The existing B.C. Police Complaints Commissioner is continuing to handle public complaints against police forces in the province.

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