Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Government stalling on broken police complaints process

It could have been funny, if it weren't such a serious issue.
B.C.'s police complaints process is broken. Four years after the police complaints commissioner started changes were badly needed to make the system work better, and 18 months after a review recommended 91 changes, the government hasn't acted to fix it.
So the B.C. Civil Liberties Association and other groups that help people who feel they have been wronged by police announced a boycott.
From now on, they will encourage people with complaints to sue the officers or force involved.
Police don't like the idea. Tom Stamatakis, head of the Vancouver police union, warned the court process would be costly and time-consuming. It would take too long to get decisions, he added. "By the time you get to an outcome, you lose the opportunity to learn from it."
Stamatakis should spend some time with Thomas McKay and his family.
On April 23, 2004, McKay was celebrating the end of the college year. He was arrested for causing a disturbance and being intoxicated in public. At the police cells, in handcuffs, he was pushed or tripped to the floor. He suffered a serious head injury.
McKay's father believed unnecessary force had been used. Within four days, he filed a complaint with the Victoria Police Department. That's the start of the current process.
But there are no timelines in the legislation. Victoria police didn't complete their internal investigation for 19 months - an inexplicable delay. The officer had done nothing wrong, the force found.
Police complaints commissioner Dirk Ryneveld examined the internal review and concluded further investigation was required. That's part of the process too.
He took only three weeks to ask for the review. But it took Victoria police 10 months to review their own investigation - and come back with the same conclusion.
That's 2 1⁄2 years, with little to show.
The police complaints commissioner still wasn't satisfied with internal review and ordered a public hearing on the complaint.
That began last month, more than four years after McKay's father went to police with a complaint his son had mistreated and injured. (The hearing was adjourned until fall because of McKay's continuing problems from his head injury.)
It's not likely the McKays would be buy Stamatakis' argument that the current system delivers results in a timely way.
The case is not an aberration. Delays are the norm.
Those aren't the only problems.
In February 2007, former appeal court justice Josiah Wood delivered a review of the complaints process the province had commissioned.
On a key point, his report pleased police. He didn't feel that B.C., like four other provinces, should create a separate investigative unit to deal with complaints.
Police could continue to investigate themselves, with officers from another department doing the review in some cases.
But he also recommended 91 changes.
Woods also audited 294 complaints against the 11 municipal police departments covered by the provincial policy as part of his review. (RCMP detachments, even those providing municipal policing, do not accept the province's complaint process.)
He found 19 per cent of the complaints had not been properly investigated. In some cases, complaints that clearly should have been upheld were dismissed.
The more serious the complaint, the greater chance of a flawed or incomplete internal review by police.
Wood's audit found, for example, that 38 per cent - more than one-third - of complaints that police used excessive force weren't properly investigated.
The finding makes it hard to accept the recommendation that police should continue to investigate themselves.
What's even harder to accept is the government's inaction on Wood's recommendations and the changes sought by Ryneveld.
With a fall legislative session unlikely, change could be put off until next year, 2010 or indefinitely.
We ask police to do a tough, sometimes dangerous job and give them considerable powers. It's necessary that their be a process to guard against abuse of those powers.
And in B.C., that process isn't working.
Footnote: The RCMP won't accept the B.C. complaints process and its own is hopelessly inadequate. Those who feel they have been wronged can complain to the RCMP Commission for Public Complaints. But the commission relies on the RCMP's own investigation and the top Mountie routinely rewrite its reports to eliminate criticism of officers' actions.