Surrey is headquarters to a new provincial Independent Investigations Office that aims to keep B.C. police officers accountable in cases involving in-custody deaths and serious injuries.
Chief Civilian Director Richard Rosenthal and his staff of 60 took their oath last week in front of Zofia Cisowski - the mother of Polish immigrant Robert Dziekanski, who died after RCMP officers Tasered him five times at Vancouver's airport in 2007.
Rosenthal and his staff are poised to travel anywhere in the province - at a moment's notice - to investigate police involvement in such cases, whether on or off duty.
Budgeted for $9.3 million in its first year, and $10 million per year after that, Rosenthal said it's hard to say how many cases his office might investigate each year.
"We've spent some time trying to collect the data from various police agencies and it's very hard to tell at this point," he said.
"When I first started, the transition team told me to expect somewhere about 300 cases per year, give or take 200. The reality is I do expect, though, that because of the serious nature of the cases that we have that we're going to be expecting less than 100 cases per year, but really only time will tell because these things have a tendency to go up and down and it's very hard to predict."
Rosenthal is a pro in the business of keeping police and public officials on their toes, having worked for 15 years as a deputy district attorney for Los Angeles, prosecuting cases involving financial crime and public corruption.
He also created Portland's police oversight agency and was Denver's first independent monitor with jurisdiction over that city's police and sheriff departments.
The Independent Investigations Office of British Columbia, with its commanding view of the region from the 12th floor of the Central City office tower, opened for business Monday morning.
Minister of Justice and Attorney General Shirley Bond oversaw the event, opening with a remark that public trust in the integrity of police is "fundamental" in democratic society.
"Occasionally there are incidents that challenge the public's confidence," she noted. "Sadly, in British Columbia we have had our share of high-profile tragedies of this nature. These events have shaken the public's faith in our police."
Bond hired Rosenthal and his crew, comprised of former cops, coroners, collision analysts and other such investigators to help restore that confidence.
"It will operate at arm's length from government," she said. "I am confident that civilian-led investigations will be conducted in a timely and transparent way, helping to restore public confidence in policing in the province of British Columbia."
Rosenthal promises his four teams of investigators will conduct fair, competent, transparent and timely investigations throughout B.C. where police officers are involved in cases in which someone has died or suffered serious harm involving disfigurement, loss of limbs or life-threatening circumstances.
Rosenthal is required to determine if an officer may have committed a crime. If believes so, he will then notify Crown counsel, which retains its independence in deciding if charges should be laid against police.
If Rosenthal concludes the officer didn't commit a crime, he said, he will "close out the case" and report to the public his reasons why.
"We will do our best for the people of this province," he said.
B.C.'s newest civilian watchdog said his staff were recruited through a "merit-based" and "extremely robust" process.
About half of the investigators are former cops, which Rosenthal said makes for "fantastic balance."
Asked if he's not concerned that many former police officers on staff might compromise the concept of B.C.'s first civilian-led police oversight agency, he replied that it's necessary from "day one" to have people with experience in the field. None have policed in B.C. within the last five years, he said.
Bond weighed in on the issue. Starting up with a "strictly civilian" staff would be virtually impossible, she argued. "Exceptional training is required."
Bond noted that the legislation requires that the agency be reviewed by 2015 with a view toward ensuring more civilian involvement, but there needs to be a transition period.
Rosenthal also plans to publicly report on trends and patterns that arise through the data his office tracks.
"This type of tracking and reporting of data doesn't really exist anywhere else in Canada to the extent that we plan to be doing this," he said.
He noted that everyone wants this process to succeed - the public, civil liberties organizations and police departments as well.
"I've heard from the police over and over again that they don't want to conduct these investigations themselves because of the problems that they're going to be criticized as being biased," he said.
Bond indicated police departments, as far as this new agency is concerned, have started the week with a clean slate.
"There will not be a look at previous cases," she said.
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