British Columbia

B.C.'s police watchdog had 'rocky start,' but attorney general is eyeing expanded mandate for IIO

B.C.'s attorney general says he's looking at a greater role for the province's civilian-led police watchdog despite critcism from some quarters that it's ineffective.

Police watchdog’s critics say it’s time for something with more teeth, transparency

B.C. Attorney General David Eby says civilian-led bodies like this province's police watchdog the Independent Investigations Office, or IIO, are the future of police oversight. (Christian Amundson/ CBC)

B.C.'s attorney general says he's eyeing greater responsibilities for the province's civilian-led police watchdog now that it has survived its "rocky start."

David Eby told CBC News he could see adding sexual assault and spousal violence cases to the Independent Investigations Office (IIO) mandate, which is currently limited to cases involving a death or serious injury during police-related incidents.

"Personally I would love to see the IIO take on an expanded mandate, but I know the IIO has just found their feet," he said.

CBC took a closer look at B.C.'s IIO after a Canadian Press analysis of the public records of police watchdog organizations across Canada found that only three to nine per cent of all cases probed result in charges against police. 

Yet Eby says agencies like the IIO are the future of police oversight, despite complaints that cases drag on and result in few charges, often despite video evidence.

An investigator with the Independent Investigations Office, B.C.'s police watchdog agency. (Gian-Paolo Mendoza/CBC)

"I look at places like the United States where charges are announced against a police officer within five days and I just can't figure out how that could happen and that there would have been a responsible investigation," Eby said.

The IIO was created in 2012 and Eby says it initially struggled to find experienced staff who were not local police and also trim its 17-month turnaround time for cases.

Eby blamed the "steadfast refusal" of some officers to cooperate with the process for multi-year court battles which ended with a Court of Appeal decision this January. That decision upheld a lower court's ruling that police can be compelled to make a statement to the IIO.

Eby also credits policy changes that allowed talented new hires and the "calm guidance" of IIO director Ronald MacDonald for improvements over the last three years.

Only five charges laid from 2014 to 2017

Between 2014 and 2017, 35 referrals from the IIO to Crown lawyers resulted in five charges being laid against police.  

Since MacDonald took over in 2017, 11 of 23 charges referred to the Crown have been approved. Six have been rejected and six are pending. 

Four cases have concluded, two in conviction and two in acquittal.

The charges against officers included aggravated assault with a weapon, assault, dangerous driving causing bodily harm, obstruction of justice and doing an unsafe U-turn.

MacDonald credits the difference to requiring a higher standard of evidence before referring a case. 

"The reality is for the vast majority of cases the police haven't done anything wrong. But the fact that we investigate allows everyone to know that's the case and that's what is very, very important," said MacDonald.

The IIO was created after the Braidwood Commission into the police-involved death of Robert Dziekanski in 2007 and had a budget of $9.4-million last fiscal year.

Toothless watchdog?

Erick Laming, a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto who studies police use of force and its impact on Indigenous and Black Communities agrees that low charge rates could mean that very few officers are doing anything wrong.

But he says it could also mean that police watchdogs are toothless in a legal system that makes it challenging to convict officers.

Laming says under MacDonald he's seen B.C.'s IIO improve, but says he's troubled that the Crown still rejected 25 per cent of cases the IIO referred, and says the public needs to know why.

Police face firestorm

"There needs to be transparency," said Laming.

Vancouver lawyers who defend officers describe the IIO's newest leader as a "breath of fresh air," but still decry delays and the many overlapping bodies investigating officers.

Some want to see the IIO and Police Complaint Commission amalgamated, others say that the current IIO just needs more resources and perhaps the power to lay charges, like the Special Investigations Unit in Ontario.

Given the "firestorm" that police now face, Vancouver defence lawyer David Butcher says he would like to see the system that investigates police streamlined  while its employees receive better training.

"These cases generally are not resulting in convictions and that has to go back to the quality of the investigation and the assessment of that evidence, because clearly judges and juries are not accepting it."

About the Author

Yvette Brend is a CBC Vancouver journalist. Yvette.Brend@CBC.ca @ybrend

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