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Handout image of Dale Culver, who died in 2017 during a confrontation in Prince George with the RCMP. Two Prince George RCMP officers have been charged with manslaughter in his death.Handout

Manslaughter charges laid this week against police officers in British Columbia are an extreme rarity, a fact the head of the independent agency responsible for investigating police-involved deaths in the province attributes to systemic inertia, conflicts of interest among prosecutors and underfunding.

Since its 2012 launch, that agency, B.C.’s Independent Investigations Office, has investigated 220 deaths and recommended that charges be laid in 14 cases. The Crown, which in B.C. is responsible for laying charges, took only one of those to trial, the data show. That officer, who was accused of manslaughter, was found not guilty in 2020.

Of the remaining cases, the Crown declined to lay charges in nine. In two, charges were laid but were later withdrawn. In one, an officer pleaded guilty to a charge of careless driving.

The numbers underline the rarity of the announcement this week that another one of the IIO’s recommendations has resulted in a criminal case. Two Prince George RCMP officers have been charged with manslaughter in the death almost six years ago of Dale Culver, a member of the Gitxsan and Wet’suwet’en First Nations. It is the first time in the IIO’s history that officers in B.C. have been charged in the death of an Indigenous person.

“It’s an anomaly,” Ronald MacDonald, head of the IIO, said in an interview Thursday. “There’s a lot of inertia in the justice system in favour of police.”

He said it was “unacceptable and unfair” that the Crown took so long to lay charges in Mr. Culver’s death. The IIO made its final charge recommendations in the case in May, 2020.

“I’m not able to explain the delay. It’s not consistent with what you see in other cases. What I can say is that a year ago, outside counsel was hired” to oversee the charging process.

“And after that, things moved very quickly.”

In comparison to the small minority of IIO-recommended cases that result in charges, 77 per cent of charges recommended by police in B.C. last year were approved by the Crown, according to the BC Prosecution Service.

Mr. Culver was arrested in Prince George on July 18, 2017, after police were called about a man allegedly lurking around vehicles in a suspicious way. In a report, the IIO said the 35-year-old was pepper-sprayed during a struggle and had trouble breathing. An ambulance was called and, once it arrived, he collapsed after being taken out of a police car. He was pronounced dead shortly after.

The BC Prosecution Service said Wednesday that RCMP constables Paul Ste-Marie and Jean Monette have been charged with manslaughter. RCMP Sergeant Jon Eusebio Cruz and constables Arthur Dalman and Clarence MacDonald are accused of attempting to obstruct justice.

Four of the five Mounties remain on active duty. Constable MacDonald is on administrative leave for reasons unrelated to his attempted obstruction charge.

B.C. Attorney-General Niki Sharma’s spokesperson said Ms. Sharma was in transit Thursday afternoon and could not immediately respond to a request for comment on the charges, and the delay in laying them.

Lily Speed-Namox, the eldest of Mr. Culver’s three children, said in a statement that authorities have kept her family in the dark throughout most of the past six years. “We want the public to know how difficult it has been for us since my dad was killed,” she said.

Mr. MacDonald said he believes there is “an inherent and perceived” conflict of interest in having local prosecutors who interact with the police on a daily basis oversee cases against police. He argued that appointing special counsel should be mandatory in all cases involving potential police crimes, as was done in Mr. Culver’s case.

Meghan McDermott, the BC Civil Liberties Association’s policy director, agreed, noting that Crown prosecutors are often reliant on officers for evidence in trials, and that this creates conflicts of interest.

She said government underfunding contributes to the slow pace of getting charges through the system. And she noted that police budgets across the province are increasing, even as oversight agencies like the IIO are fighting for more resources to ensure police accountability and bolster public trust.

Mr. MacDonald said the IIO has been underfunded and is barely able to field enough investigators to keep up with severe injuries and deaths caused by officers. He said his office has 19 investigators currently, but needs 36.

“We’re in dire straits. I don’t sleep at night. I’m worried about my staff – the degree of stress they’re under,” he said.

Brian Sauvé, president of the National Police Federation, which represents about 20,000 Mounties, also called the slow pace of the Culver case “simply unacceptable and unfair” to everyone, including Mr. Culver’s family, the officers involved and the community of Prince George.

“We support transparent, accountable, and timely investigations and court proceedings. However, it is important to highlight that this file was far from timely,” he said in a statement.

With a report from The Canadian Press

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