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B.C. police are rarely charged for killing or harming civilians. A watchdog wants prosecutors' choices reviewed.

Investigators from B.C.'s Independent Investigations Office are seen in this provided image. Investigators from B.C.'s Independent Investigations Office are seen in this provided image.

B.C.'s police watchdog wants a review of how prosecutors handle cases where officers kill or seriously harm members of the public, saying low rates of charges and convictions are casting doubt on the province's system of accountability.

Ronald MacDonald, the head of the Independent Investigations Office of B.C., notes that recent decisions not to prosecute any of the officers involved in the deaths of Indigenous victims Jared Lowndes and Dale Culver have been met with public outcry and demands for change from still-grieving families.

Before he retires early next month, MacDonald will be submitting a report to the province's attorney general asking for a review of not only these two cases, but of the way cases referred to the BC Prosecution Service by the IIO are handled.

"When you're seeing trends, where the charge approval rate is low, and where the conviction rate in contested matters is non-existent, I think it's fair to say that those trends raise real concern in the minds of the public," he said.

The IIO is called in to investigate all officer-involved incidents that result in serious harm or death, whether or not there is any allegation of wrongdoing.

Fewer than half of cases result in charges

In the past five years, Crown has reached a decision in 39 cases where the Independent Investigations Office has forwarded a report for consideration of charges against police officers. Charges were approved in just 18 – working out to a rate of 46 per cent, MacDonald tells CTV News.

That rate is "quite a bit lower" than the overall rate for the BCPS, MacDonald said.

Data from the BCPS' 2022-23 annual report shows an average charge approval rate of 77.6 per cent over the past five years.

A spokesperson for the BCPS, in a statement, said she was unable to confirm the charge approval rate for IIO files.

"The BCPS agrees that the rate may be different than for other types of files forwarded by other police agencies. A number of factors may contribute to any variance," Damienne Darby, communications counsel, said in an email. A list of these factors included a "lower standard for referral of charges" as well as the legal and factual complexity of the cases.

Zero convictions in contested cases

Since the IIO was founded in 2012, MacDonald said, no officer who has contested a charge has ever been convicted.

"With numbers like that over a period of time – not just one case, not just two cases, but over a period of time – it's understandable that the public might have issues," MacDonald said.

"In order to maintain the public's faith in our system of accountability, where necessary, we think it's important to be transparent that we recognize there might be a problem."

Police officers have been convicted after IIO investigations. There are cases in which charges have been approved and guilty pleas have been entered. However, MacDonald says those cases have in his experience, been "almost exclusively" related to driving offences or violations of the Motor Vehicle Act.

MacDonald notes that most cases reviewed by the IIO do not result in a report being forwarded to Crown.

"It is a fact that most of the time we say the police have no need to be held accountable because their actions were justified. But in those small percentage of cases where they ought to be held accountable, we have to make sure that we have the best system possible dealing with those situations," he says.

One of the issues MacDonald says he has encountered is that the BCPS will often require the IIO to provide information or evidence from a "use of force expert" as part of its report. Those experts, he says, are almost always current or former police officers.

"Given that the whole idea behind civilian oversight is to have decisions made, in the case of the IIO, by someone who has never worked as police it does seem somewhat ironic in the minds of some members of the public, that the Crown is depending on a police person to help them make that decision," he said.

Police-involved shootings

The request for a review comes after the end of the IIO's fiscal year, a year in which there were 16 police-involved shootings in the province – down from 27 in the previous year but still more than double the historical average.

"With that increased number of the most serious types of use of force it can raise an extra urgency to consideration of issues as to how effective the overall system of accountability is," MacDonald said.

In the 16 cases reported last year, five of the victims were Indigenous, which works out to 31 per cent. In B.C., Indigenous people make up about six per cent of the population

"That's a quite an over-representation," MacDonald said, adding that this over-representation is both consistent with data from other years and concerning.

Calls for Inquiry

The First Nations Leadership Council is calling for an inquiry into police killings of Indigenous people in the province – citing the recent decisions in the Lowndes and Culver cases as examples of why one is necessary.

"We will be seeking an urgent meeting with the B.C. Attorney General and the B.C. Solicitor General to demand answers and a public inquiry. We are shocked and angered, and will not be backing down on seeking justice,” Hugh Braker, First Nations Summit Political Representative, said in in a statement Monday.

The call for an inquiry first came from Lowndes' mother, Laura Holland, after she learned that the RCMP officers in her son's case would not be charged or prosecuted.

"For too long, the BCPS has been permitted to hide behind these unjust policies, procedures, and laws to protect the police officers who commit crimes, inflicting pain and punishment on Indigenous people. It is time for transformative change. Enough is enough," she said in Monday's statement from the FNLC.

BCPS silent about review

MacDonald says he has not yet submitted his report to the attorney general but that it will be in the "near future." The report will not be publicly available but submitted directly to the attorney general.

MacDonald's last day on the job is May 8 and he acknowledges that the response to his report will be "out of his hands." However, he says he will continue to speak and write about the system of police oversight in Canada to "ensure that it is operating as effectively as possible in order to assure the members of the public can have confidence in their police services," he said.

The BCPS – despite being asked directly – has provided no comment on MacDonald's call for a review of its decisions. Top Stories

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