Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Police complaints commissioner handcuffed by weak law

VICTORIA - Watch for an early showdown between Wally Oppal and Rich Coleman over the need for effective civilian oversight of police departments.
Police Complaints Commissioner Dirk Ryneveld has just delivered his report on 55 complaints against the Vancouver police department.
It's grim reading. A 14-month independent RCMP investigation substantiated nine cases of police misconduct.
That's not the worrying part. Nine cases aren't so bad, really, given the workload of the Vancouver police. Unacceptable, but not shocking.
What is shocking is the way the current provincial legislation lets a police force evade civilian oversight. The Vancouver department, its chief and the union have basically told the complaints commissioner to get lost, exploiting the weakness in the law.
The office of the police complaints commission was established in 1998, largely due to a review done by Oppal. Under the new system people who were unhappy with the police would still go first to their local department with concerns.
But if they felt their complaints had been ignored they could go to the commissioner and ask for a review.
Great theory, and one that is widely supported. We ask police to take on difficult assignments, and allow them great powers. It's reasonable and necessary that those powers be balanced with accountability.
But that is not the way the Vancouver police force sees it, according to Ryneveld's report. In the case of these complaints, officers -- with the support of Chief Jamie Graham -- refused to be interviewed by the RCMP investigators.
It's part of a pattern. When the commissioner investigated the death of Jeffrey Berg after he was arrested by Vancouver police, the department stalled in providing critical evidence. When the Victoria police were asked to review the death of Robert Bagnell, after he was Tasered by the Vancouver police, they threatened to walk away from the investigation because of the lack of co-operation from the Vancouver department.
The government knows the law needs strengthening. In his first annual report, released more than a year ago, Ryneveld called for legislative changes to make the system work.
But even before that, the problems were evident. Ryneveld's predecessor resigned amid great controversy. Investigations have been tied up in procedural wrangling, undermining public confidence in the process, and the police. (The probe into police actions at the "Riot at the Hyatt" was stalled for five years because of costly legal battles.)
Ryneveld reported that the legislation governing the commission was "one of the main obstacles to effective performance of our duties."
"It is unclear, ambiguous and does not provide adequate remedies to the office of the police complaints commissioner to ensure effective civilian oversight," he wrote.
Ryneveld recommended the law be changed to make it clear that the commissioner can launch an independent fact-finding investigation if the initial internal police investigation appears flawed.
Without it, he added in his annual report, "the concept of civilian oversight is severely compromised."
And Ryneveld wanted the law changed to make it clear that he's an independent officer of the legislature, and not an employee of the solicitor general.
Coleman brushed off the concerns last year, without offering any arguments against the proposed changes.
But Oppal -- then still a Supreme Court justice -- backed Ryneveld's recommendations for change, agreeing they were needed to ensure effective civilian oversight of police.
And now both men will be in cabinet, quite possibly squaring off over this issue.
It's not just a Vancouver issue. Ryneveld notes in his latest report that other police forces across the province have co-operated with his office. But without clear and effective accountability provisions in the law, that co-operation will always be uncertain.
An effective complaint commission is important for police and the public. Both need confidence in the fairness and effectiveness of the process.
Ryneveld has already made the case for change.
The latest investigation into the Vancouver police department is a strong case for change. The Liberals should be listening, and acting.
Footnote: Ryneveld's opinions aren't easily dismissed. He was a veteran Crown prosecutor in Victoria before taking a leave to help prosecute people accused of war crimes at The Hague. He has worked effectively with police officers through his career. He is not, in short, some unrealistic alarmist.


Anonymous said...

I think Wally Oppal is in for a rather unpleasant surprise once he really gets his bearings.

Campbell and Coleman will do all they can to hobble him and make it harder for him to undertake any of the reforms he's advocated over the years but that probably won't be what'll upset Mr. Oppal the most.

What'll grind his noble bones the most will be when he discovers just how corrupt some of his new stable mates are once Justice Dohm deigns to allow the people of BC to finally know just what those search warrnats were about. If Dohm ever does. Now that he's got the case he might refuse to release not only the warrant information but he might also seal the proceedings so that we never know anything about any of it. That'll grind Wally's bones too.

Come to think of it, it was Dohm who oversaw the Mayencourt/Stevenson judicial recount.

An appeal of the recount is probably in order.

RossK said...

And don't forget how Mr. Graham and Mr. Coleman tried to get out in front of this issue (in an attempt to spin it?) when the RCMP report was first tabled.

Paul, given his streak of independence, which seems to be, perhaps, one of the factors that separates him from his predecessor, it would be interesting to read about the story of Mr. Ryneveld's appointment.