A provincial police watchdog agency is having such trouble finding skilled investigators that it wants the ability to fill vacancies with recently retired B.C. officers and those interested in a career change — a move that is currently restricted under law.
That restriction is likely to be repealed this month before the end of the session in the B.C. legislature with the passing of the Police Amendment Act, which is being led by Attorney General David Eby, who is worried about the viability of the Independent Investigations Office.
“I think without this amendment, the organization would ultimately lose the confidence of both the public and the police, and we would have to take it apart,” Eby told the Courier.
The act passed third reading Wednesday and now needs Royal Assent.
The act will temporarily lift — for two years — the current restriction that prohibits the IIO from hiring a person who has been a police officer in B.C. within the last five years prior to appointment.
The restriction was put in place to prevent recently retired B.C. officers — or those who have left their department — from investigating other police and potentially handling files involving officers they used to work with or know.
It was done to erase perceived bias from the public about the quality of investigations and work towards the government’s goal of eventually having all IIO staff come from non-police trained backgrounds.
However, Eby said, the IIO currently needs people experienced in investigations who can support civilians on staff and ensure investigations are comprehensive, effective and done in a timely manner.
'Salvage' the IIO
“Unfortunately, for a while, those things weren’t happening and it manifested in a bunch of different ways, not the least of which was very lengthy delays in resulting investigations and very public critiques of the quality of the investigations, which threatened the very existence of the organization, which obviously means a lot to me,” he said, adding that the way to “salvage” the IIO is to have it be “competent in their work.”
Added Eby: “So I’m supporting them in being competent in their work, and also supporting them in having a plan to go forward to ensure that they have adequate civilian investigations to get to where we need to get here in B.C.”
The IIO’s chief civilian director Ronald Macdonald, who was appointed under Eby in October 2017, said the agency needs at least seven more investigators, including one specialized in forensics, to better respond to the agency’s workload.
The agency is tasked with investigating all incidents in B.C. involving police where someone has been killed or suffered serious harm. The IIO began operating in September 2012 in response to recommendations from the Frank Paul and Braidwood inquiries for an independent body to investigate police.
“The skills needed to do these types of investigations are not typically the kind that you find in non-police trained people,” said Macdonald, a former criminal lawyer who ran a similar agency in Nova Scotia for six years. “So the pool is not large.”
The act opens up a two-year window for Macdonald to seek out people who worked as cops in B.C. as recently as this year. At the same time, he added, the agency continues to develop a two-year training and certification program for non-police candidates.
“We’re going to go into this to hire the seven best people we can,” he said, emphasizing that doesn’t mean all recruits will be former police officers.
The agency is currently staffed by 16 former police officers and 20 people who have come from other professions, including lawyers and private investigators. Macdonald believes the percentage of non-police trained staff is one of the highest in Canadian police oversight agencies.
“What we’ve developed is kind of a balance of persons who come with a lot of experience in doing criminal investigations, and we balance that with persons who can bring a more civilian perspective to the work,” he said. “We meld that together on the floor and oversee that.”
'A step backwards'
Dylan Mazur, a community lawyer with the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, called the government’s move to relax the five-year rule on hiring B.C. cops “a step backwards.”
Mazur said a training program to attract non-police candidates should have been in place when the agency opened in 2012. Had it been, the goal of government for total civilianization of the agency could have been reached sooner, he added.
“It’s hard to understand why this wasn’t foreseen,” said Mazur, noting the civil liberties association is now reassured that such a training program is in place to attract candidates with no policing backgrounds.
Mazur said the association understands the recruitment issues experienced by the IIO and acknowledged it might be a necessary temporary step to attract more staff, especially in the agency’s forensics division.
“We understand the trouble,” he said. “This is a balance. You want well-founded and well-operated investigations, especially when we’re dealing with police-involved deaths.”
Mazur represents an association that was once led by Eby, who also worked for Pivot Legal Society. In both roles, Eby was a fierce critic of the practice of police investigating police, saying it was inherently biased.
Asked about his past advocacy work, Eby said he was “still firmly opposed to police self-investigations.” That said, he pointed out what he described as a “very public crisis of confidence in this organization from both affected families and from affected police officers.”
Eby was referring to revelations that surfaced in 2015 from an all-party special committee of the legislature about high staff turnover, reports of operational dysfunction, difficult working conditions and a culture clash between former police and non-police trained staff.
Families of victims of police shootings also criticized the agency for shoddy investigations.
At the time, Richard Rosenthal was the civilian director of the IIO. In an interview with the Courier in February 2015, he cited growing pains of a new organization for many of the problems identified by the special committee.
“If you were to ask any organizational development expert, they would tell you that in the first couple of years of a new organization, this is what happens,” said Rosenthal, who retired in 2016. “You deal with it, you prepare for it, you move on.”
Eby described Macdonald’s appointment as “starting fresh” and that he has been successful in “turning things around, reducing the time of resolution of investigations and forwarding some recommendations for charges and other pieces.”
In Macdonald’s first 18 months on the job, the IIO has produced more than 60 public reports. In the previous 18 months, the agency produced 18 reports.
Both Eby and Macdonald said the goal is still to have the IIO become an agency staffed solely with civilians. Both acknowledged that achieving such a complement of staff will take many years.
Eby: “Realistically, that’s going to be a long time.”
Macdonald: “Every person in B.C. wants to ensure that we do excellent investigations that can stand up, if necessary, in court. At this point in time, in order to do that, this is how we have to proceed. That’s just the reality of the world.”