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Police watchdog encounters its first challenges

Frank Paul, who died after being left in an laneway while drunk is seen in this undated photo.


B.C.'s police oversight agency has launched its third investigation since it started a month ago – a period that has highlighted the challenges the civilian-led office must overcome in terms of logistics, and public perception.

Six members of the Independent Investigations Office arrived in the southeastern community of Cranbrook on Wednesday. Owen Court, the IIO's spokesman, said an RCMP officer was following up on an alleged carjacking on Tuesday night when the male driver of the vehicle was shot. He suffered non-life-threatening injuries and was taken to hospital. The officer was uninjured.

Police did not say whether the man was armed or known to police, or what his relationship was with an unhurt female passenger.

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The IIO is a response to public inquiries into the deaths of Robert Dziekanski and Frank Paul for an agency to investigate incidents of serious harm involving police. It was launched with much fanfare on Sept. 10. Its first case, an RCMP shooting in Prince George, came that very day.

Its second case, involving a woman who jumped from a balcony after Penticton RCMP responded to a 911 call, was reported on Sept. 25.

When asked during an interview if the office expected this many cases in its first month, Mr. Court said yes. He added that the agency is by no means stretched thin.

When asked what difficulties the office has faced, Mr. Court pointed to travel.

The agency's first case, the Prince George shooting, came in at 7:36 p.m. By the time investigators flew in, it was about midnight and no rental car was available. Investigators borrowed vehicles from the RCMP.

The decision drew complaints of conflict of interest.

"It's fair to emphasize that we will certainly do everything we can to secure our own transport, regardless of where we are in the province," Mr. Court said. "I like to think that that was a one-off, that we happened to be there long after hours and weren't able to secure a rental car."

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Notification has also proved a challenge. The RCMP reported the second case, the woman injured jumping from a balcony, to the IIO four days after it occurred.

Mr. Court said the RCMP didn't realize the incident was under the IIO's jurisdiction.

"It fell on the fringe of our mandate," he said. "The individual involved did suffer what would be referred to as 'serious harm.' The police were, in fact, engaged with her at the time. Unfortunately, it was self-inflicted, and given that, I think there was some lack of clarity on the part of the police as to whether or not that should be reported."

David Eby, executive director of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, said his group was concerned by the use of RCMP resources in the first case, and the slow notification time in the second.

Mr. Eby added, however, that the office appears to be doing a better job when it comes to communicating with victims' families.

"Previously, the families would tend to find out through press releases what the state of the investigation was, and how things were going," he said. "At least in ... one case that I'm familiar with, it's been a very different approach. In fact, they have a liaison person specifically assigned to keep the family in the loop."

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Mr. Eby said the attention paid to the use of RCMP vehicles in Prince George demonstrates the microscope under which the office is operating.

"The trust is so fragile here, and it's going to really take some time before the IIO earns the trust of the community as being sufficiently independent of the police," he said.

Mr. Court said all three investigations are ongoing and the office is committed to timeliness. It remains unclear when the public reports will be issued.

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