Independent police investigations: be careful what you wish for

March 16, 2012 1 Comment »
Independent police investigations: be careful what you wish for
Richard Rosenthal & Minister Shirley Bond (Nick Procaylo/PNG)

In July the provincial government passed Bill 12 into law ushering into existence the Independent Investigations Office, the much-heralded civilian oversight agency to investigate the actions of the police.

In December, the province announced the hiring of Richard Rosenthal who previously was Denver’s first independent police monitor. The American lawyer is currently in the process of hiring his team of investigators anticipating that he will be ready to go in B.C. sometime within the next few months.

While the office will eliminate the ‘police investigating police’ complaints it may also come with unintended consequences. Ontario was the first province to have a civilian oversight agency investigating incidents where serious injury or death resulted from police incidents. Starting in 1990, the Special Investigations Unit immediately created an adversarial atmosphere right out of the gate. Since then, nothing has improved in the intervening years.

24 Hours VancouverBecause of this, the way things have evolved so far, if a cop is involved in a shooting or other serious incident, regardless of circumstance, he or she first consults with a lawyer before writing notes. This has frustrated many a SIU investigator.

Ontario’s provincial Ombudsman Andre Marin has conducted two separate investigations into the dysfunction between the SIU and police. Dubbed Oversight Unseen in 2008 and Oversight Undermined in December 2011, he has been trying to undo the Gordian knot and get the government to legislate the police to cooperate with the SIU.

By definition the SIU will investigate and prosecute police officers, thus they are perceived as the enemy. The police claim the right to counsel is their right under the Charter. And with those battle lines drawn both sides have been engaged in a political clash.

Last week, in what many see as a political escalation, the SIU announced a second-degree murder charge against Toronto Constable David Cavanagh, shocking the police community.

The officer was assigned to the tactical unit in Toronto. In September 2010, he was part of a team executing a weapons-related warrant looking for Ebony Osawe. While a fellow officer was clearing another room looking for the suspect, his brother, Eric Osawe, got involved in a fight with Cavanagh who was carrying an MP5 machine pistol.

In the struggle, the weapon went off and Eric Osawe was killed. Cavanagh was initially charged with manslaughter, a charge that has since been upped to second-degree murder, a specific intent offense. They are alleging that Cavanagh intended to kill Osawe.

It seems highly unlikely they can convict based on this fact pattern. So why lay such a heavy charge? The only answer is politics, the ongoing battle with police.

One hopes this is not the path B.C. is headed down.

- post by Leo Knight. Originally published in 24 Hours.



One Comment

  1. Mark (via Facebook) March 17, 2012 at 9:31 am -

    Police oversight is crucial especially in BC given the outrageous actions of a few which have tarnished there image of police in the minds of the public. For this writer to suggest that we should reconsider having police oversight because it will lead to a situation where a lawyer will be consulted before notes on an incident are taken made me shake my head. Police have a right to consult a lawyer and the only reason they don't normally is because they feel that they won't be held accountable for their actions.
    My concern as a member of the public comes less from seeing that there is a small number who screw up – it comes from seeing the subsequent actions of their fellow members and the police leadership to mislead the public (imagine the story we would believe had there not been one man with a video camera at the airport which told the truth of what happened).