Watchdog wants sharper teeth to punish police
The Canadian Press
Published Thursday, September 10, 2009 8:26AM PDT
Out of the 77 times B.C.'s police complaint commissioner found misconduct this year, only one resulted in a maximum suspension and the commissioner's office is hoping new legislation will offer more clout to punish police who are out of line.
The commissioner's office released its quarterly report Wednesday and found the number of substantiated complaints so far this year in line with those from past years.
But Bruce Brown, the deputy commissioner, said in an interview that he hopes long-awaited changes to the Police Act surrounding officer discipline will be made by the legislature in this fall sitting.
A disfunctional system?
And David Eby, of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, said the fact that all but 19 of the substantiated complaints came from police departments themselves means the system isn't functioning for the public.
The one allegation that resulted in the maximum five-day suspension involved an officer convicted of assault for kicking an alleged car thief in the face while the suspect was down on the ground.
The only other sanction more serious is outright dismissal. That penalty was not handed out in the complaints examined by the commissioner this year.
Other complaints involved infractions such as failing to submit a report to the Crown within six months, taunting a man who was arrested under the Mental Health Act as he was being taken away to hospital, and attempting to cover up a breast feeding mother with a newspaper resulted only in advice.
Brown said his office is hopeful that when the Police Act goes before the legislature later this year, it will include long-discussed changes to police punishment.
Brown wouldn't say exactly what the amendments will include, but he pointed to a 2007 report on the police complaints process by former justice Josiah Wood. Wood recommended the maximum suspension without pay for misconduct be increased six-fold, to 30 days.
"That was an area that Joe Wood, in his review of the Police Act, made several recommendations about, that there was a need to take a look at the type of penalties that can be imposed under the Police Act," said Brown.
"You either go from a five-day suspension to dismissal and there may be situations that dismissal might not be required but it might seem more appropriate than to have five days."
Not a strong case
Of the 569 individual allegations that were reviewed by the police complaint commissioner, nearly half, or 273, were found to be short of the required evidence.
Eby noted that in only 19 cases, were members of the public successful in making complaints against police officers.
"If you look at the complaints, the vast majority of them are complaints that are made internally," he said.
That "reinforces for us that the complaints system isn't working."
Police watching police
Eby said the problem stems from the fact that even though the police complaint commissioner provides civilian oversight of certain investigations, those investigations are still conducted by officers.
"There simply aren't that many frivolous or vexatious complaints. It means that they're simply not being found to be valid when they're investigated by police officers who are investigating themselves," he said.
Among the allegations that have been substantiated so far this year was the case against an officer accused of on-duty sexual assault. The officer resigned prior to discipline hearings and criminal charges were not approved.
In another instance, an officer was found to have conducted unauthorized searches on police databases and handing the information to outside agencies. The officer was given a one-day suspension.
One officer was given a two-day suspension for using unnecessary and excessive force against a prisoner in an interview room, resulting in a cut to the forehead and a chipped tooth. Another officer was issued a three-day suspension for failing to attend a noise complaint, writing a false report, and lying to the investigator when confronted.
Much of B.C. is policed by Mounties -- who are covered by a separate complaints process -- but cities such as Vancouver and Victoria have their own municipal departments.
Const. Jana McGuinness, spokesperson for the Vancouver Police Department, said her force has seen a 20-per-cent reduction in misconduct allegations so far this year.
"In 2008, January to August, it was 401 recorded complaints," she said. "We're down to 323 this year to date."
McGuinness said the force is encouraged by the positive trend, but could only speculate on the year-to-year difference.
Sgt. Grant Hamilton, with the Victoria Police Department, said the number of complaints his force received fluctuated wildly a few years ago.
"One year we had 90 complaints, but 20 of those were from one person," he said.
"It's not so much how many complaints you get. The concern would be are we seeing a pattern, is there a training issue."
In 2008, there were 117 substantiated allegations against municipal police officers in B.C.
The president of the B.C. Association of Chiefs of Police did not return a call seeking comment.