Overdose crisis prompting B.C.'s police watchdog to change investigation policy

The Independent Investigations Office is about to roll out a policy that will mean officers won't be required to contact them in cases where someone dies or is seriously injured while an officer is administering life saving measures such as CPR or a naloxone injection.

Officers administering life saving measures like naloxone or CPR won't be investigated in event of a death

First responders offer help to an overdose victim. Now, the IIO is opening the door for police officers to respond in incidents like this as well, with a policy change to the kinds of cases it investigates. (CBC)

When the call came in to B.C.'s police watchdog last week, it was the first of its kind: someone had died after an RCMP officer administered the overdose-reversing drug naloxone.

"It was an incident out of Surrey. It was the first notification that we had where the police administered CPR and naloxone, and we were notified," said Marten Youssef, director of public engagement and policy with the Independent Investigations Office.

The IIO investigated and found the officer did nothing wrong. But the call highlighted a particular problem the office is facing.

Marten Youssef speaks for the Independent Investigations Office. (Marten Youssef/Linkedin)

Under the Police Act, officers are required to notify the IIO whenever someone dies or is seriously injured while police are on the scene or when a suspect is in custody.

That means even if an officer goes to a call and tries to save someone's life, but that person dies, the IIO must still be contacted.

"The police have expressed to us that this is a major challenge they have. That an officer just applied life saving measures and now they're subject to an IIO investigation," said Youssef.

'Time for action is now'

Last week's may have been the first investigation of this kind related to opioids, but there have been other incidents where officers have tried, unsuccessfully, to save a life. And in every case like that, the IIO has cleared the officer involved.

But the opioid crisis has pushed concerns over the policy to new levels.

Youssef said police boards told the IIO some forces were reluctant to distribute naloxone to their officers because they didn't want to see the officers end up the subject of an IIO investigation in the event an overdose victim died.

That's why the IIO is now changing its policy: officers who simply try to save a life during a call will not be investigated.

"There's a state of crisis when it comes to fentanyl and the time for action is now," said Youssef.

"The policy is essentially going to be that the police are only required to notify the IIO in instances where there's use of force that's applied or a fatality or serious injury happens while in custody." 

Lt. Doug Conacher of Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services looks on as firefighter Jason Lynch gets to work on a fentanyl overdose victim who is not responding to naloxone. (CBC)

Youssef is hoping the policy change also results in faster investigation times. 

The IIO has been criticized in the past for taking too long with its cases. Youssef said this coming change will stop investigators from being pulled on to needless cases.

In August alone, Youssef said the IIO was contacted about 11 cases involving officers administering CPR.

"What this will do is it will expedite other cases and allow us to focus our resources on the cases that the IIO was intended for in its creation," said Youssef.

Police, social justice activists pleased

Acting Sgt. Brian Montague with the Vancouver Police department said the VPD has been asking for this kind of change for some time.

"We're extremely happy this is being addressed," said Montague.

"It's very, very unsettling for officers to be under investigation by a provincial body like that."

The VPD has a non-attendance policy when it comes to responding to overdoses, but Montague said officers are often in situations where they're forced to provide CPR.

The Pivot Legal Society was part of an advisory group that worked with the IIO on the change. Douglas King — a lawyer with Pivot — said during a crisis like this, it's important everyone responding has the tools they need to help save lives.

"It's more just about making [sure] that every time an officer arrives on scene like that, they feel that they can confidently help if they have the ability to," said King.