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Richard Rosenthal, chief civilian director of the Independent Investigations Office, is photographed at his office in Surrey, B.C, Aug. 22, 2012. (Rafal Gerszak For The Globe and Mail)
Richard Rosenthal, chief civilian director of the Independent Investigations Office, is photographed at his office in Surrey, B.C, Aug. 22, 2012. (Rafal Gerszak For The Globe and Mail)

Policing

Police watchdog symbolizes sense of justice for aggrieved mother Add to ...

Linda Bush took her grandchildren to school Monday morning and then spent some quiet moments alone, thinking about a day she thought might never arrive. Still, there was little question its arrival was bittersweet.

“It’s a great day for British Columbia,” Ms. Bush said over the phone from her home in Houston, B.C. “It was a long time coming, and it’s not a perfect solution, but it’s certainly better than what we’ve had.”

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Ms. Bush was commenting on the official opening Monday of the province’s Independent Investigations Office, B.C.’s first independent civilian oversight agency. It will take over reviews of any incidents that end in fatalities or serious injury involving the RCMP, 11 municipal police departments and forces that patrol transit and first nations communities.

Had it been in existence on Oct. 29, 2005, it would have taken over the investigation into the death of Ms. Bush’s son, Ian, a 22-year-old mill worker who died in police custody after being picked up by the RCMP outside a hockey arena in Houston for having an open bottle of beer in his hand.

An hour later, he would be dead with a bullet in the back of his head.

The Bush case represents a seminal moment in the history of policing in British Columbia.

To many, the version of events offered by the officer who shot Mr. Bush defied belief. When it was suggested to an RCMP spokesman at the time that the public deserved more details about the circumstances surrounding both the shooting and the subsequent investigation, he said: “The public has the right to know nothing.” Those eight words would reverberate across the country and, in many ways, come to symbolize the arrogance and institutional isolationism with which the force had increasingly become associated.

The Bush case helped sow the seeds of public distrust in the RCMP in B.C. that would only grow in the months that followed. And with each case of dubious misconduct by a Mountie or municipal police officer that was followed up by a suspect internal probe clearing the officer in question of any wrongdoing, the public’s cynicism about the police became more chronic.

The death of Robert Dziekanski at the Vancouver International Airport on Oct. 14, 2007, would finally trigger the transformative change resulting in the establishment of B.C.’s first civilian oversight agency. It would be one of the central recommendations made by Thomas Braidwood following his commission into Mr. Dziekanski’s death – one that uncovered questionable police behaviour and shoddy investigative practices by the force into the actions of the four members involved.

By that point, the B.C. government had little choice but to establish an independent oversight body. To do otherwise would have meant risking even further erosion of the public’s faith in the police. And any further deterioration of that trust could have set the relationship between the two sides back decades.

Still, the BC Liberals deserve credit for giving the province a body with some real teeth, not to mention a strong, experienced and respected person to lead it in Richard Rosenthal.

But Mr. Rosenthal faces a tough slog – at least in the early going. There is understandable skepticism that he will take action against cops, when a good portion of his investigative team is made up of former officers. There is concern, too, that the government didn’t have the money to give the Independent Investigations Office its own forensics branch, meaning it will have to rely on lab work done by police forces it could potentially be investigating.

Still, for Linda Bush, it’s a start, and far, far better than the system the office is supplanting.

“I think we should give Mr. Rosenthal a chance,” said Ms. Bush, who has met the new director. “He’s very much going to be in charge, and if anybody on his team is not doing things his way I’m sure they won’t be around for long.”

Linda Bush was a quiet, keep-to-herself mother of three before her son was killed. It changed everything. From then on, she became one of B.C.’s leading advocates of civilian oversight. She says the new agency is, to her mind, tacit acknowledgment that what happened to her son was wrong.

“It [her son’s death] was senseless and in vain and Ian’s life should not have been the cost for whatever we got here today,” she said. “But you know, for years I and others have said that there was no justice for Ian. Well, maybe in a small way this is.”

Follow on Twitter: @garymasonglobe

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