Police officers involved in incidents that result in death or serious injury will face immediate questioning by independent investigators, the head of B.C.'s new civilian-led oversight agency said Monday.
Richard Rosenthal said the Independent Investigations Office plans to eliminate delays that hampered previous inquiries into policeinvolved incidents.
"It used to be that officer witnesses were not interviewed for hours, perhaps days or weeks," he said. "The expectation now is they'll be interviewed before the end of their shift or within 24 hours."
The oversight office opened its doors Monday in Surrey and is ready to dispatch investigators anywhere in the province to probe critical incidents involving on-and off-duty members of the RCMP, municipal police agencies, auxiliary police, special provincial constables, First Nations police and the South Coast British Columbia Transportation Authority.
The office will have a staff of 60, including 36 investigators split evenly between civilians and ex-police officers - none of whom have worked in policing in B.C. in the past five years.
A list of investigators released Monday includes former members of the RCMP and municipal departments in Calgary, Saskatoon, Edmonton and London, England. Former CBC Radio journalist Priya Ramu is one of the civilian investigators, along with former employees of the B.C. Coroners Service, ICBC's special investigations unit, the Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner and the Canada Border Services Agency.
Rosenthal, a former U.S. prosecutor and police watchdog, said it was necessary to hire ex-police officers because of the potential for serious cases, including off-duty homicides.
"We have to have a level of competency from day one," he said. "So we have to have people who have experience investigating these serious cases."
But he said the office has a "fantastic balance" of both police and civilians.
"We are creating our own new culture here," he said. "It's different from anything that's ever existed anywhere certainly in B.C., certainly in Canada and probably anywhere in the world. We have a good, solid mixture of experience, expertise, philosophies and cultures that will make this office fair and unbiased, regardless of what the circumstances are."
Justice Minister Shirley Bond said she's happy with the office's current makeup, but the expectation is that fewer ex-police officers will be needed in future. "The intent is to continue to look to a more civilian model," she said.
The B.C. Civil Liberties Association welcomed the official opening of the office, which was created following public inquiries into the deaths of Frank Paul and Robert Dziekanski. Paul, a homeless aboriginal man, died of hypothermia in 1998 in a Vancouver alley where he was left by a police officer, while Dziekanski was a Polish immigrant who died at Vancouver International Airport in 2007 after being tasered repeatedly by RCMP officers.
David Eby, the B.C. Civil Liberties Association's executive director, said the one-to-one ratio of police to civilians in the agency is better than in the Ontario model, where 80 per cent of the investigators are expolice.
"Our expectation, though, is that these former police will be phased out of the organization, so that it becomes entirely civilian."
Eby said the association also hopes the office's mandate will expand to include more than just police incidents that result in deaths or serious injuries.
The office, for instance, will not be investigating sexual assaults.
"We'll also be watching the level of co-operation of police," Eby said. "Simply because this body has been established does not mean police are off the hook for preserving the evidence at the scene and these kinds of things."
Rosenthal said the police have been supportive of the organization to date.
"I would actually not have taken this job had I not seen what I believe to be almost a perfect storm, where police executives, police unions, civil liberties organizations, the government and the public were all supportive of this concept," he said.
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