Police officers in B.C. who face allegations in incidents of serious harm or death are about to come under the scrutiny of Richard Rosenthal, the first chief civilian director of British Columbia’s new Independent Investigations Office.
Mr. Rosenthal is a former Los Angeles district deputy-attorney who went on to oversight roles in Portland and Denver.
Since being introduced by Premier Christy Clark in December, Mr. Rosenthal has been building his team, hiring 35 investigators – former police officers out of the field for at least five years, and civilian investigators.
How did you hear about this job?
It was kind of dumb luck. My [research and policy] analyst in Denver came to me one day and showed me the job announcement and said, “Look what they’re doing in B.C.” It was interesting and enticing – and it was B.C.
Why were you interested in the job?
This is something that really doesn’t exist anywhere in the United States in the sense of having a civilian agency that conducts the criminal investigations of critical incidents.
If we’re successful we will be able to establish not just within Canada, but within the world, that this kind of unbiased and independent investigation model can be successful.
There is public cynicism in this province about police oversight. How do you think the Independent Investigations Office (IIO) will handle that?
It’s a great challenge because there is going to be cynicism on both sides. There’s a level of cynicism, potentially, from the police community as to, is the IIO going to conduct competent investigations and fair investigations? And then there’s cynicism from the community side as to whether the IIO could potentially become just another police agency with bias towards police officers. For lack of a better term, the proof is in the pudding. We are going to have to prove it by doing it, and it’s essential that our investigations are both competent and unbiased.
In addition, it’s also essential that they’re timely because the reality is that even if you have a competent investigation, if it takes too long, people lose faith in the system. If you have timely investigation that’s incompetent, people legitimately lose faith in the system. So it’s a matter of ensuring that our office is successful in competent, unbiased, timely investigations. With that, I believe we can overcome any cynicism.
What are the one or two truths you’ve learned in your police oversight career that you’re bringing to B.C.?
I have a few mantras I’ve learned as a result of being in public accountability. As one of my mentors in oversight said, oversight is not for the faint of heart. You have to be willing to suffer the slings and arrows while you’re doing your job. You’re going to be criticized no matter what you do so you might as well be criticized for doing the right thing.
In a previous interview, you said you were not going to comment on specific cases such as the tasering death of Robert Dziekanski or Ian Bush, who was killed in police custody. Is there anything you can say about what these cases have done to the environment in which your team is about to begin working?
The key point about cases such as Dziekanski and Ian Bush are that we’re here. That is why the IIO has been created, because of these various cases and community concerns relating to them, so what I have done to prepare is, I have read the inquiries, read any reports relating to some of these high-profile cases, and I have met with people involved in these cases to try and understand the nuances and how we got to where we are now. A big part of what we’re doing is trying to take each of those cases and evaluate them and figure out what mistakes were made and how to avoid similar mistakes in the future.
Is it true you had to carry a gun for your own protection in Los Angeles?
It is true, but the story has not been accurately reported.
What is accurate?
My wife was a prosecutor in Los Angeles as well and she was a hard–core-gang prosecutor and, as a result of one of her cases, we had round-the-clock protection for a time and then, after the protection was withdrawn, we carried guns for a short period of time until we felt secure that we no longer needed to do so.
Did you ever have to fire them or take them out?
No. Not at all. It was actually a very short period after which we concluded that neither one of us wanted or felt the necessity to do so.
Did you ever think you would be living in Canada?
When I was in Los Angeles, it never occurred to me that I would ever leave Los Angeles. I was born and raised there. The move to Oregon was huge and totally unexpected. The move to Denver was unexpected and unanticipated. In Denver, my wife had actually publicly mentioned she was planning to take me out of Colorado in a box. I did not plan or expect to come to Canada or B.C., but the professional opportunity was extraordinary.
In addition to being a great professional opportunity... I’ve read it somewhere and I think it’s true: It’s the best place on earth. I love trees. Everywhere I look, there are big beautiful trees.
This interview has been edited and condensed.