Police watchdogs in Alberta and British Columbia say a lack of resources and slow-moving Crown prosecutors mean police misconduct investigations drag on for years, and critics argue this delays justice for victims and leaves accused officers under a cloud.
In Alberta, the head of the independent police review agency on Tuesday said cases are delayed because it is short on funding. B.C.’s agency said it has had difficulty retaining employees. Both argued the process of laying charges is laborious because investigators and prosecutors need to be certain their cases are nailed down.
On Monday, authorities in Alberta announced two RCMP officers in the province were charged in relation to a fatal shooting in 2018, and officials in B.C. said three RCMP members face charges in connection with the arrest of two suspects in 2016. Police rarely face criminal charges after seriously injuring or killing civilians, in part because laws permit them to use force. But allegations of police misconduct are increasing, putting the review agencies under greater pressure and public scrutiny.
“We are swamped,” Susan Hughson, the executive director of Alberta Serious Incident Response Team (ASIRT), said in an interview on Tuesday. “ASIRT is struggling given its current resources."
Charges of criminal negligence causing death against two RCMP officers in Whitecourt in a fatal shooting on July 3, 2018, are the first of their kind for ASIRT.
Corporal Randy Stenger and Constable Jessica Brown are accused of firing their weapons in an altercation with Clayton Crawford, a 31-year-old who died of gunshot wounds. On Aug. 22, 2019, ASIRT wrapped its investigation and asked the Crown whether the case met its standard for prosecution. The Crown returned its opinion on May 29, 2020, and Ms. Hughson concluded that the two officers should be charged.
“In my opinion, two years is too long,” she said. “Asking families and officers to wait two years or longer is too long.”
Proper investigations, she said, could take about a year if ASIRT and the Crown had more funding. ASIRT’s budget is about $4-million a year and about 25 people work at the agency. It was involved in 75 cases in 2019, up from 32 a decade prior. Last year, ASIRT pressed charges against eight officers.
Harsha Walia, executive director of the BC Civil Liberties Association, said there is much frustration about police accountability, with charges not being laid in cases of misconduct or delays in the judicial action.
“In general, there is a very legitimate public perception that when it comes to police accountability, feet are dragged," she said. "That is something that is systemic, that needs to be looked at.”
The Mounties in 2016 called in B.C.'s Independent Investigations Office after an incident involving two arrests in 2016 in Prince George. The IIO investigates all officer-related incidents that result in serious harm. The agency noted that at about 6:30 a.m. on Feb. 18, 2016, police attempted to stop a stolen truck in the city. When the occupants of the truck tried to flee, the police arrested them.
Backyard surveillance video captured the incident. Officers, one deploying a police dog, converge on the truck, and the suspects are pulled out. The dog appears to attack one suspect who, on the ground, is also struck multiple times by one of the officers.
In June, 2018, the IIO announced it had filed a report to the B.C. Prosecution Service for their consideration of charges relating to injuries suffered by the two men during the arrest. On Monday, authorities said Constable Joshua Grafton has been charged with assault with a weapon and obstruction of justice; and Constable Wayne Connell and Constable Kyle Sharpe were charged with assault causing bodily harm.
Authorities in B.C. said the lengthy delay was a result of a complex case and voluminous, although sometimes slow, disclosures. Ronald MacDonald, the chief civilian director of the IIO, said he looked at the file within a few months of joining the organization in 2017 and identified some problems with the investigation.
“Two years went by before the Crown made their recommendation, almost the same length of time it took to do our investigation.
“I will say our investigation period is not a time frame I am happy with. We have made significant changes since then.”
He said investigation times have been cut in half, and the organization has hired more investigators and improved retention, and changed its investigative processes, among other measures.
Brian Sauvé, president of the National Police Federation, which acts as the union for Mounties, said the four-year delay in laying charges in Prince George is “clearly unreasonable” and left the officers in a “holding pattern.”
“It baffles me to be four and a half years later, and all of a sudden you have a charge approval in politically charged times. I am not going to say it was a political decision, but it’s suspicious,” Mr. Sauvé said.
He added that the use of force is a rarity in arrests, used in about one 10th of a per cent of calls.
“Unfortunately, when use of force is applied, it is never pretty,” he said.
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