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Public inquiry finds citizen assaulted by police officer

The B.C. Civil Liberties Association will hold a press conference on Friday, September 27, 1996 at 10:00 a.m. in the board room of the B.C. Public Interest Advocacy Centre, at suite 815 – 815 West Hastings Street, Vancouver.

BCCLA representatives will discuss the implications of a recent decision of the Vancouver Police Board, which found that a member of the Vancouver Police Department committed a disciplinary default by assaulting a man at the Vancouver jail cells.

This decision came as a result of Mr. Charan Aujla’s complaint under the Police Act, alleging assault by two members of the Vancouver Police Department while he was being held in custody.

A Vancouver Police Department internal investigation found that no discipline charges could be justified. Dissatisfied with this decision, Mr. Aujla contacted the BCCLA for assistance. The Association arranged for lawyer Paul Kent-Snowsell of Milne Selkirk to represent Mr. Aujla at the Police Board public inquiry.

As a result of important video evidence presented at the inquiry, the Police Board found that a member of the Vancouver Police Department had assaulted the complainant. However, in the absence of independent evidence, the Police Board found there was insufficient evidence to conclude that the second alleged assault occurred.

Mr. Kent-Snowsell and BCCLA policy director Murray Mollard will discuss the importance of this decision, and link it to the need for further reform of the police complaint process.

Vancouver Police Board Decision Points to Need for Reform in the Police Complaint Process

The Facts of the Case and the Board’s Decision

As a result of a complaint by Mr. Charan Aujla under the Police Act, the Vancouver Police Board has found one member of the Vancouver Police Department to have committed a disciplinary default by assaulting Mr. Aujla at the Vancouver jail cell.

On January 26, 1994, Mr. Aujla was taken into custody. Mr. Aujla alleged that while at the jail he was assaulted on two different occasions by two different members of the Vancouver Police Department . The first allegation concerned being hit by the police officer while signing a document. Because he was concerned about having been strip searched, including an anal search, Mr. Aujla was intending to write “naked searched” on the document when he was struck by a member of the police. The officer then violently threw Mr. Aujla into a holding cell. The second allegation of assault was that a different police officer slammed a jail cell door on Mr. Aujla’s fingers, breaking them.

After these incidents, Mr. Aujla complained to the Vancouver Police Department as required under the Police Act. A report by the Internal Investigation Department found that there was insufficient evidence to warrant a criminal or disciplinary offence charge. The Vancouver Police Board overturned this internal investigation decision, finding sufficient evidence to substantiate the first allegation, but not the second. As a result, the Board found one officer guilty of having abused his authority by using unnecessary violence against a prisoner, a breach of the Police Discipline Code s. 7(b).

Video taped evidence clearly depicting the events involving the first allegation of assault was a key factor in the decision of the Vancouver Police Board. This video was taken from cameras set up to record events at the Vancouver jail cell. No video evidence was available for the second allegation.

The Need for Reform of the Police Complaint Process

According to Murray Mollard, policy director for the BCCLA, this decision points to the need to reform the police complaint process. Without the independent, objective evidence on the video, it would have been much more difficult to make this finding, since it would have been the police officer’s word against the complainant’s.

Under the existing complaint process, the standard of proof is very high: the criminal standard of “beyond a reasonable doubt”. The BCCLA believes that this high standard is inappropriate, making it extremely difficult for complainants to prove their case. Regrettably, in the vast majority of complaints there is no clear objective evidence (such as a video recording) that the tribunal can rely on to make a judgment. Under such a high standard of proof, complainants are rarely successful. For example, there was no video evidence to support or refute the second allegation in this case.

The BCCLA has long argued for a change in the standard of proof from a criminal to a civil standard. We have also called for the establishment of an independent civilian office of a complaint commissioner to oversee police complaints. The BCCLA believes that such changes would greatly improve the citizen police complaint process to ensure greater accountability for police officers in B.C.

Last spring, the Attorney General publicly committed to making these and other important changes to the police complaint process. These changes have the support of the BCCLA, other citizen groups, the Chiefs of Police and the police union. We hoped to see these changes in the last legislative session, and were deeply disappointed that the promised changes were not made. We hope that Mr. Aujla’s case will provide an impetus to the Attorney General to make good on his commitment and to speed long overdue reform to the police complaint process. That way, police can become even more accountable to the citizens of British Columbia.

BCCLA Recognition to Paul Kent-Snowsell for his Contribution to the Case

Finally, the BCCLA would like to acknowledge the efforts of Mr. Kent-Snowsell in the case by volunteering his time as a favour to the BCCLA to represent Mr. Aujla at the inquiry. Mr. Kent-Snowsell’s participation was an important factor in ensuring that Mr. Aujla was fairly represented at the inquiry and that that the Police Board had a fair picture of the evidence before making its decision.