Skip to main content

Dale Culver, an Indigenous man from Prince George, died in 2017 after police responded to a report that a man was casing vehicles and had later tried to flee on a bicycle. Police pepper-sprayed the 35-year-old during a struggle, but Mr. Culver developed trouble breathing. An ambulance was called, but Mr. Culver collapsed after being taken out of a police car and was pronounced dead shortly after.

This week, after more than five years, two Prince George RCMP officers were charged with manslaughter. It’s hard to overstate how rare this is.

Nancy Macdonald and Mike Hager dove into records kept by B.C.’s independent police watchdog, the Independent Investigations Office, and found that since it was formed in 2012, the Independent Investigations Office has investigated 220 deaths and recommended that charges be laid in 14 cases.

In nine of those cases, the Crown declined to lay charges. In two, charges were laid but were later withdrawn. In one, an officer pleaded guilty to a charge of careless driving. Only one case went to court, where the officer was acquitted of manslaughter charges in 2020.

“It’s an anomaly,” Ronald MacDonald, head of the IIO, said in an interview Thursday.

British Columbia’s police watchdog was established in 2012 after the findings of two public inquiries concluded – as Ontario had done years earlier – that police should not be investigating police when someone dies at the hands of an officer.

There was even agreement among some law-enforcement officers that there needed to be a better way: RCMP Superintendent Wayne Rideout told the Braidwood inquiry into the death of Polish immigrant Robert Dziekanski at Vancouver’s airport in October, 2007 that he believed officers investigating other officers presents an “unwinnable” image problem.

But despite the promise of new accountability for police, Mr. MacDonald was blunt in his interview with Nancy about the hurdles his office faces.

Crown prosecutors are often closely aligned with police, who provide the Crown with the evidence they need to argue their cases, Mr. MacDonald and others have said, noting the close relationship may cause reluctance to lay charges. In the case of Mr. Culver’s death, the IIO had recommended to the Crown that charges be laid as far back as 2020.

“There’s a lot of inertia in the justice system in favour of police,” Mr. MacDonald said, adding it was “unacceptable and unfair” that it took so long.

“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.

Meghan McDermott, the BC Civil Liberties Association’s policy director, noted that government underfunding contributes to the slow pace of getting charges through the system. While police budgets across the province are increasing, oversight agencies such as the IIO are fighting for more resources to ensure police accountability and bolster public trust.

Mr. MacDonald said his office has 19 investigators. It 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.

“Without changes, there can be no reasonable expectation that the IIO will be able to continue delivering fair and thorough investigations to the standard required in a timely fashion.”

This is the weekly Western Canada newsletter written by B.C. Editor Wendy Cox and Alberta Bureau Chief James Keller. If you’re reading this on the web, or it was forwarded to you from someone else, you can sign up for it and all Globe newsletters here.