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'We have to walk before we can run'

May 02 2012

Some of B.C.'s most controversial police brutality allegations will not be investigated by the new civilian-led police investigations body.

The Independent Investigations Office, set to be up and running this summer, will investigate police conduct that results in death or serious injury - but not sexual assault and assault, said its civilian director Richard Rosenthal in an interview with the Times Colonist.

Under the law, serious injury is defined as lifethreatening injury, loss of use of a limb or organ, or disfigurement.

That means high-profile cases such as an 11-yearold boy Tasered by RCMP officers in Prince George or the YouTube video of a Victoria police officer kicking a man on the ground might not be investigated by the independent office.

"It's obviously a limitation to our mandate, but I think it's a necessary one," Rosenthal said. "To try and start up a department to investigate any and all criminal allegations - it would just be too much."

Rosenthal said his team needs to demonstrate it can investigate in-custody deaths or serious injuries thoroughly and with transparency and timeliness before broadening the scope of cases.

"We have to walk before we can run."

The justice minister or the director of police services has the power to recommend certain controversial cases to Rosenthal's office that fall outside its limited mandate.

"Sometimes, there are those cases where everyone would expect it and want it," Rosenthal said.

In the government's initial announcement of the creation of the office and Rosenthal's appointment as civilian director, the mandate was described as "police-related deaths, serious harm and other serious incidents," leaving room for interpretation.

A Justice Ministry spokesman confirmed the office's jurisdiction was always limited to death or serious injury.

Rosenthal has been travelling the province meeting with police chiefs, union heads, First Nations groups, victim agencies and other community groups who want a voice in how police should be investigated.

Many people are concerned about sexual assault being left out of the mandate, considering the physical and psychological harm involved, he said.

Rosenthal, who has agreed to two five-year terms, said eventually he hopes his agency will investigate all allegations of criminal wrongdoing against police officers.

As the office finds its feet, Rosenthal wants to avoid the disasters seen when Ontario's Special Investigations Unit started up 20 years ago. Their handling of some criminal investigations was so poor, police officers sued for wrongful prosecution.

The Special Investigations Unit probes all criminal allegations against police officers; however, it does not investigate offduty incidents.

That's one area where B.C. is leading across Canada, Rosenthal said, in that the office will investigate death or serious injury involving off-duty officers.

The Alberta Serious Incident Response Team, which is made up of seconded officers and military members, includes corruption cases as part of its mandate.

The Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner will still oversee misconduct complaints against police officers - a process that will be handled internally by the officer's department or by another police agency.

The Independent Investigations Office has a budget of $10.1 million over the next three years.

The office, headquartered in central Surrey, will have a total staff of 60.

Rosenthal and his administrative team is in the process of recruiting and hiring the 34 investigators, a mix of civilians and former police officers.

They've made several job offers and are waiting to clear individuals on background and criminal record checks.

Rosenthal said at the outset, about two-thirds of the investigators will be retired police officers who are from out of province or who haven't worked as cops in B.C. for at least five years.

He wouldn't say what kind of civilians are applying for the job, but other provinces have tapped lawyers, safety inspectors, corrections officials or border guards for the job.

Rosenthal wouldn't give a timeline for when the entire team would be hired and ready to take cases.

"We are creating a brand-new police agency from scratch," he said.

"We know the investigations will be subject to scrutiny from police, from Crown, from the public. It's why one of the primary goals is fair, unbiased, thorough investigations."

kderosa@timescolonist

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