The fatal shooting of a man inside a Surrey grocery store marks the first time transit police officers have been involved in a shooting death since they started carrying guns nine years ago.
But while the investigation into the man's death continues, the province's police watchdog has rebuked the transit force for releasing information about the shooting – information it says could turn out to be self-serving, biased, or inaccurate.
The Independent Investigations Office, the watchdog that examines incidents of death or serious harm involving police, continued its investigation on Monday. The office has said a man died on Sunday after he was shot by police at a Safeway store, not far from a SkyTrain station. The office has now interviewed about 20 witnesses who were inside the store, and obtained physical and video evidence. The office is still waiting on examination results from the B.C. Coroners Service.
The transit police force – which patrols SkyTrain, buses and other aspects of Lower Mainland transit – began carrying firearms in December, 2005. That's when the new force first began operations; transit was previously patrolled by security constables.
Anne Drennan, the transit force's spokeswoman, said her agency was involved in a non-fatal shooting earlier this year. However, Sunday was the first time the force was involved in a shooting death, she said.
On Monday, the watchdog criticized earlier remarks by Ms. Drennan about the shooting.
Kellie Kilpatrick, an IIO spokeswoman, said police agencies are prohibited from speaking about the IIO's investigations, except to say it has been notified about an incident. Ms. Drennan was quoted Sunday as saying the man shot by police was carrying a knife, and was advancing on officers.
"While I understand why a police agency may want to get their version out sooner rather than later, we have an agreement with all B.C. police agencies to minimize any potential actions/sharing of information that may be viewed as self-serving, biased or may end up being inaccurate," Ms. Kilpatrick wrote in an email.
Ms. Drennan, in an interview, said she had been careful with her remarks and had not gone into details about the shooting. When asked about her suggestion the man was advancing on police, she said that was factual information provided by the officers.
The transit police force has faced controversy in the past. In 2008, it was criticized for its use of tasers, including five incidents in which riders had not paid fares. One of its higher-profile cases was in 2012, when an explosive device was left on the SkyTrain track; the force did not make any arrests.
Robert Gordon, a criminology professor at Simon Fraser University, said having a transit police force makes sense since the system weaves through several municipalities. Without the transit police, he said, it individual agencies would deal with issues along the SkyTrain system.
Irwin Cohen, the RCMP research chair at the University of the Fraser Valley, said crime near transit stations is a problem in any major city. He said having a presence in and around those areas can make them safer. He said transit police have been particularly successful in arresting people with outstanding warrants.
Mr. Cohen, when asked about the IIO's criticism of transit police, said there is a protocol for releasing information in such situations. He added, however, that police sometimes do not do themselves any favours by withholding information.