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RCMP and BCCLA clash over First Nations injury investigations

Three First Nations families in northern B.C. have reported serious injuries to a family member resulting in encounters with local RCMP after they called the police for help, according to a statement released by the B.C. Civil Liberties Association Tuesday morning.

According to the Prince Rupert RCMP website, on April 4 a 15-year-old girl's arm was broken during a struggle with RCMP officers after they responded to a report of a domestic dispute between the girl and her mother. The police website states that officers apprehended her in accordance with the Mental Health Act because she intended to end her own life.

The case is now being investigated by the Delta Police Department to determine what events lead to the injury. Initially the girl was charged with assault of the police officer, but Delta police dismissed that charge, according to David Eby, executive director of BCCLA.

Eby said the family of the girl disputes the information released by the RCMP concerning the incident.

He added that the family isn't able to voice their concerns because they are currently under investigation. According to him, the RCMP is "painting a picture in that case that we disagree with strongly."

Two weeks after the incident in Prince Rupert, on April 21, 47-year-old Robert Wright sustained serious head injuries while in police custody for alleged impaired driving, according to the Terrace RCMP website.

After multiple trips to the hospital, Wright was eventually moved to Royal Columbian Hospital in New Westminster for care. He has since come out of a coma, but continues to suffer from a brain injury.

Eby said it is still unknown how the injuries were sustained, but that Wright was in the Terrace cells at the time. There is a video of the incident being used in the investigation headed by New Westminster, but no one outside of the investigation has seen it, according to Eby.

On May 15, another Terrace resident William Watts received multiple head injuries after calling for police assistance with his sister. Watts claims the RCMP officers subjected him to racial taunts, punched him after he was handcuffed, and put his head in a bag, according to the BCCLA release.

Watts' case is currently under investigation by the Commission for Public Complaints Against the RCMP, but BCCLA President Rob Holmes is calling for an independent investigation.

"The point has already been made that having police investigate themselves... simply doesn't provide effective investigations or give public confidence that result of investigations is an accurate account of what actually happened," Holmes said.

Holmes says these incidents are an indication of a "systemic failure" in the North-Western B.C. RCMP.

"I think that efforts have to be made by the RCMP to ensure that they have good relations and a kind of professionalism and understanding of the communities that they're serving," Holmes said. "Simply ignoring it or saying the status quo is okay simply isn't okay."

Eby says that due to current discipline provisions in the RCMP Act, even if the officers under investigation are found to be at fault, the RCMP's ability to fire or prosecute them is hindered.

"We're in this twilight zone of literally zero accountability," Eby said.

The B.C. RCMP released an official response to the BCCLA press release, saying they are "disappointed" that the agency would send out a press release against the RCMP when the organization is aware that investigations into the incidents are already underway.

Superintendent Ray Bernoties of RCMP communications said that since the allegations are "unsubstantiated" at this point, "it would be inappropriate for me, or frankly anyone, to speak about these incidents while they are being investigated."

Eby was disappointed with this reaction, and claims to have given the RCMP a week's notice before releasing the statement.

"Our question to the RCMP is, what would you have us do if not go to the court of public opinion? There really is no other remedy," Eby said.

According to Eby, it is the job of the BCCLA to give a voice to people who can't speak out otherwise, and if the RCMP expects to have those discussions in private, "they're sadly mistaken."

"That's our job -- to give platforms to people where they believe the police have not conducted themselves properly."

Hanah Redman is completing a practicum at The Tyee.

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