When police kill civilians: It’s time we got straight answers

Murray Mollard, Special to the Vancouver Sun Published: Tuesday, October 30, 2007

On Oct. 14, Robert Dziekanski died at Vancouver International Airport after the RCMP used their Taser guns to subdue him. His flight from Poland had arrived late, and, speaking no English and having no money, Dziekanski became extremely agitated and was destroying furniture.

A tragic, isolated incident? Far from it.

Since 1992, 267 people have died while in the custody of or while being pursued by the police in British Columbia, an average of almost 18 each year. From Victoria to Fort St. John, Yahk to Alert Bay, more than 70 cities and towns in the province have experienced a police-involved civilian death in the last 15 years.

Maybe police were justified in using force against an alleged suspect or arrestee in many of these cases. Maybe the police exercised appropriate care and control in pursuing or detaining these individuals.

Then again, maybe not.

Because police investigate police in these cases, there is always doubt about whether the family and public get straight answers.

Coroner’s inquests, mandated by law when there is a death of a civilian in police custody, do not provide answers either because they are specifically prohibited from making any findings regarding legal responsibility. Never mind that inquests rely on evidence provided by internal police investigations and often occur years after the death.

The upshot: Public confidence in the official police version of these deaths is often lacking. In some cases, the public is downright hostile to the official version. Ian Bush’s death at the Houston RCMP detachment comes to mind.

This lack of public confidence should be deep cause for concern to everyone, including the police, because it can really undermine successful policing.

Especially in small communities such as Houston, where citizens and police alike often buy their coffee from the same Tim Horton’s.

Or within aboriginal communities, urban and reserve.

A disproportionate number of the 267 deaths since 1992 involve individuals of first nation and aboriginal heritage. While there is real hope that the recently convened Frank Paul Inquiry will give the public straight answers about how Paul died, we shouldn’t need to call a public inquiry after every police-involved death. Paul is the aboriginal man who was found dead on the street after being dropped off by the Vancouver Police Department 10 years ago.

Granted, perception is not reality. But the current system for police accountability in civilian in-custody and pursuit deaths involving the municipal police and the RCMP suffers from two curable ills: A perception of bias and, in some cases, real bias.

If we are going to maintain and enhance public confidence in the police, both problems must be addressed. To change our outdated system will take a little moxie by elected representatives and those responsible for police accountability. Speaking at a recent public forum hosted by the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, André Marin, ombudsman of Ontario, who is presently undertaking a review of the Special Investigations Unit, the Ontario civilian agency responsible for criminal investigations of all police-involved civilian deaths, put it this way (I’m paraphrasing): Ontario is trying to figure out how to change its system from a gas-powered car to a hybrid while B.C. is still wondering whether to move from horse-drawn carts to cars.

In his recent review of the police complaint provisions of the Police Act, former B.C. Court of Appeal justice Josiah Wood suggested that there are not enough civilian police-involved deaths to justify an independent civilian agency to investigate. An average of 18 deaths each year? How many do we need to justify an independent system?

Meanwhile, Alberta is putting together just such an agency with presumably fewer deaths each year.

I have often wondered why the police wouldn’t want a system that ensures an impartial, independent probing of these deaths. After all, independent investigations would truly clear a police officer’s name, enhance public confidence and identify better practices that could prevent future deaths that often involve complex issues of mental health and addiction.

Police are deserving of our respect and support. They put their lives on the line every day to serve and protect us. It may well be that in many of these deaths, the police have acted courageously and professionally. Now if we could only come up with a system for providing the public with answers that matches the police officers’ courage.

Murray Mollard is the executive director of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association.