The B.C. Civil Liberties Association is extremely pleased that legislation revamping the police complaints process in B.C. has finally been introduced in the Legislature.
The long struggle for change has involved many groups and individuals—including the police unions and the Chiefs, citizens groups, Mr. Justice Oppal’s landmark Commission of Inquiry into Policing in B.C. and the provincial government. The BCCLA salutes all these participants for the huge amount of time and resources they have devoted to the struggle, and for the efforts made to reach a broad agreement on a new complaints process.
The BCCLA believes that the new police complaints process will significantly improve the way complaints about the police are handled by municipal police forces. It will increase both the confidence of citizens that complaints will receive a fair hearing, and the confidence of police officers that their rights will be protected.
In our briefs to the Oppal Commission, the BCCLA isolated three major problem areas in the current complaints process:
- the defensive and legalistic response of police to complaints against themselves
- the lack of credible and effective oversight and
- the lack of an impartial appeals mechanism.
The proposed process addresses all three of these shortcomings.
Defensive and legalistic response
The process provides for an informal resolution process which stands a much better chance of resolving some complaints. We are confident that the change to the civil standard of proof, and the inclusion of a corrective measures approach to discipline, will reduce the defensive posture that police too often take to citizens’ complaints.
Lack of credible and effective oversight
The proposed Police Complaints Commissioner will, in our view, have the powers needed to ensure that complaints are properly characterized and investigated thoroughly, and where the complainant or the officer is dissatisfied with the decision on serious complaints, that access to an appeal is available. The fact that the Commissioner will be an Officer of the Legislature will go a long way to instilling confidence in the process in the minds of both the public and police officers.
Lack of impartial appeal mechanism
Appeals of a police decision regarding a complaint will go to a public hearing before a Provincial Court Judge. This is a significant improvement upon the current system, where appeals go before a police board. Unlike police boards, Judges are not the employers of the Police Chief, and have no need to express confidence in the Chief’s decisions.
The provision for a process to handle service and policy complaints is an important addition. The BCCLA has long regarded policy issues as central to the proper response to complaints about use of force, obtaining of search warrants and other serious matters. The proposed system provides the basis for a more satisfactory response to complaints which raise policy issues.
Many citizens have recommended that the police no longer investigate themselves, that investigations be handled by neutral parties. The BCCLA has not supported this recommendation, and notes that it is not contained in the proposed system.
Although we agree that the current system is unacceptable, in our decades of experience in assisting complainants we have not found that the major problem has been shoddy investigations. On the whole, investigations have been reasonably thorough. The problems have resided rather in the initial defensive response by police to citizens’ complaints, the discipline decisions made on the basis of otherwise thorough investigations, and the lack of meaningful appeal from these decisions. We believe that the Commissioner’s powers to oversee investigations and to order new ones by outside investigators can address any problems in investigations which occur.