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B.C. police watchdog Stan Lowe rides a ‘sea change’

Stan Lowe has stayed out of the limelight during his time as B.C.’s police complaint commissioner in the last four years. While he left much of the public speaking role to his deputy Rollie Woods, Lowe made some bold and tough decisions.
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B.C. police complaint commissioner Stan Lowe: "We're not infallible. We make mistakes, but if you make a mistake, it can affect an officer's life and his livelihood."

Stan Lowe has stayed out of the limelight during his time as B.C.’s police complaint commissioner in the last four years.

While he left much of the public speaking role to his deputy Rollie Woods, Lowe made some bold and tough decisions. He overturned, for example, a decision to exonerate Victoria’s former police chief, Jamie Graham, after an investigation into offhand comments he made about an undercover officer, and ordered a second probe that found Graham guilty of discreditable conduct.

The B.C. government, which first appointed him in February 2009 for a six-year term, last week reappointed Lowe for another four years.

As the 54-year-old former Crown prosecutor looks ahead to his new term as the civilian police watchdog, he makes no apologies for his actions to date, saying his loyalty is to the public and his goal is to ensure thorough oversight of police misconduct investigations.

Lowe launched a challenge in the B.C. Supreme Court for the right to call a public hearing after a man was beaten in January 2010 by Vancouver police officers who knocked on the wrong door while investigating a report of a violent domestic dispute. Lowe was unsuccessful and the case never went before a public hearing.

He also ordered a public hearing into Victoria police’s arrest of a 19-year-old lacrosse player in March 2010 after a drunken brawl outside a downtown nightclub. The arrest attracted widespread public attention after a video, showing the man being kicked and kneed as he was arrested, was posted to YouTube.

In an interview with the Times Colonist, Lowe said that, in the past five years, people and police in the province have concluded that police supervision is needed.

“We have seen a sea change in the attitude toward oversight,” Lowe said.

The Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner is responsible for overseeing police departments’ internal investigations into officer misconduct.

As a result of changes to the Police Act in 2010, Lowe and his team can oversee the investigation while it is underway and make suggestions or ask questions. If the OPCC starts to lose confidence in the investigation, Lowe can order an external police agency to take over the case.

And if the discipline authority — the police department looking into an officer’s alleged misconduct — makes a decision Lowe disagrees with, he can order a public hearing.

That’s what happened in the case of the lacrosse player, Tyler Archer. Lowe disagreed with New Westminster Police Chief Dave Jones’s decision that constables Chris Bowser and Brendan Robinson did not use excessive force.

That case also highlighted a major flaw in the Police Act, which Lowe is still pressing the provincial government to fix. The act does not give the discipline authority power to call witnesses to determine wrongdoing. The officer being investigated is the only one who can call witnesses — something that rarely happens, leaving the process one-sided.

“We had numerous discipline proceedings where the only witnesses called were police witnesses,” Lowe said. “The complainant has no voice.”

In reviewing the Archer file, Jones didn’t hear from a single witness. Lowe believed that because the case had such a high profile — the YouTube video was viewed 287,462 times — a public hearing was necessary to restore public confidence in the process.

The 10-month hearing was the longest police complaint process in recent B.C. history and cost the province’s taxpayers nearly $500,000 in legal fees and overtime costs for police officers called to testify. “That case is a rarity,” Lowe said, adding most public hearings are concluded in two or three days.

As a result of the hearing, Bowser received a two-day suspension without pay. Robinson was not penalized because the adjudicator found he did not abuse his authority.

The number of complaints against police brought to the OPCC has declined gradually, to 1,060 in 2013-14 from 1,142 in 2010-11. Only about 40 per cent of complaints are deemed admissible for an investigation.

The quality of internal misconduct investigations has improved substantially over the years as police departments come to accept civilian oversight, Lowe said.

He acknowledges there’s a major gap in that his office can’t oversee misconduct files involving the RCMP — which polices most of the province — since the force is covered by federal law. The RCMP has its own complaints process and can only recommend discipline.

Lowe said he wants to see more police complaints being resolved informally, through face-to-face meetings and resolutions that both parties agree to. “It’s more effective in repairing the relationship between the police community and the people they serve.”

When Lowe first started his role, about five per cent of registered complaints were handled informally. Now, with that percentage closer to 25 per cent, he’d like the government to make it mandatory to proceed first with informal resolution for less serious misconduct cases.

The OPCC works separately from the Independent Investigations Office, which was created in September 2012 to investigate police-involved deaths or serious injuries where the officer could face criminal charges. In cases where the Independent Investigations Office finds no criminal wrongdoing, the OPCC can still investigate for misconduct which could result in discipline, ranging from a written reprimand or training courses to more serious sanctions, such as a demotion or discharge.

The OPCC has a budget of just over $3 million and is staffed by 17 people, about half former police officers and half civilians. Lowe has said his staff has worked together “seamlessly.”

“I developed an organizational loyalty,” he said.

“We are all civilians and we are loyal to the public.”

Lowe was able to see just how effectively his staff works without him in 2009 when he was diagnosed with colon cancer. He spent six months undergoing chemotherapy and has now been cancer-free for five years.

He insists he has never felt political pressure over one of his decisions. But he knows, with all the public scrutiny around police use of force, that each decision carries a great weight.

“We’re not infallible,” Lowe said. “We make mistakes, but if you make a mistake, it can affect an officer’s life and his livelihood.”

High-profile OPCC cases during Stan Lowe’s tenure

• Lowe overturned the initial investigation by Kelowna RCMP that cleared former Victoria police chief Jamie Graham of wrongdoing for comments Graham made about an undercover officer spying on a busload of anti-Olympic protesters in 2009.

The B.C. Civil Liberties Association complained that the investigation by Kelowna RCMP Chief Supt. Don Harrison was flawed. Harrison interviewed only three people and listened to a tape of Graham’s remarks.

Lowe reviewed the matter, suspended Harrison’s decision and ordered a second investigation. That investigation, in which 19 people were interviewed, found Graham guilty of discreditable conduct.

RCMP Chief Supt. Rick Taylor of Burnaby said Graham made “highly inappropriate” spontaneous remarks in “a very poor attempt at humour” at the expense of a protest group, “without considering their impact and weight.”

• Lowe challenged a B.C. Supreme Court order that blocked a public hearing into a case in which two Vancouver police officers, responding to a domestic dispute, went to the wrong house and beat an innocent man, Yao Wei Wu, in January 2010.

Lowe said there were serious flaws in the investigation and called for a public inquiry.

But the two officers, constables Bryan London and Nicholas Florkow, applied to the B.C. Supreme Court to shut down the hearing. A Supreme Court justice quashed the scheduled hearing, saying Lowe does not have the jurisdiction to order a public hearing if there was no discipline proceeding.

The B.C. Court of Appeal upheld that decision.

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