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BC unleashes independent police watchdog on RCMP and civilian police forces

VANCOUVER - Starting Monday, police incidents in British Columbia that end in fatalities or serious injury will be investigated by an outside agency.

The provincial Independent Investigations Office will open its doors, taking over reviews for incidents involving RCMP, 11 municipal police departments, provincial Transit Police and one First Nations police force operating in the province.

The office fulfills the primary recommendation from public inquiries into two high-profile police-involved deaths: Robert Dziekanski died at Vancouver airport in October 2007 after being stunned with an RCMP Taser and Frank Paul froze to death in a Vancouver alley where he was taken by Vancouver police after being ejected from the city drunk tank.

B.C. Justice Minister Shirley Bond will officially open the office on Monday alongside IIO director Richard Rosenthal.

Bond has said the office will strengthen the public's faith in police by ensuring that incidents of death or serious harm are investigated in an impartial way.

Mark Surakka, whose daughter lay dying for four days after an RCMP officer failed to properly investigate a 911 call, said the office has been a long time coming.

But Surakka has many questions, and he's hesitant to believe the new watchdog will be able to hold police accountable for their actions.

"I think it's an important step," Surakka said Sunday.

But he fears the office's recommendations and decisions will not be binding on the police agencies, or that it may still fall to police to report themselves in cases of injury.

"We found out by accident," Surakka said of the circumstances of his daughter's death, a case which would likely not fall under the auspices of the IIO. "That makes me sort of hesitant to endorse it fully."

In his daughter's case, it wasn't until Surakka began asking questions that it was revealed that a 911 call came in the day she and her partner were shot at a marijuana grow operation near Mission, B.C. The RCMP officer who responded to the call did not get out of his vehicle.

Lisa Dudley lay in the house for four days before a neighbour found her. She died en route to the hospital.

The officer involved lost a day's pay and received a letter of reprimand, and the RCMP changed its policy to require officers to speak directly to a caller who dials 911.

"They have always been able to do what they want. There has been no accountability," Surakka said of RCMP.

In order to maintain impartiality, the government has stipulated that none of the investigators hired by the office can have served as a police officer in B.C. within the past five years.

The Surakkas say that's not good enough.

Having even former officers involved is putting "a wolf in the hen house," said Rosemarie Surakka.

"They really shouldn't have police in there to help them. What they need is somebody completely neutral, and from the outside."

David Eby of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association said his group, which has long advocated the creation of an independent watchdog, is glad to see this day finally arrive.

"We think that it's a long overdue improvement in police accountability in our province," Eby said.

But the association would still like the IIO mandate expanded to look at past cases, such as the shooting of Ian Bush, a 22-year-old sawmill worker who was arrested for having an open beer at a hockey game in Houston, B.C., and ended up shot in the head in an RCMP cell in October 2005.

The Commission for Public Complaints Against the RCMP investigated and found the shooting by Const. Paul Koester acted in self-defence, but concerns linger about this and several other cases, Eby said.

"A number of these cases are ongoing concerns in the communities where these people come from," he said.

The association would also like to see the IIO take over investigations of allegations of sexual assault against police officers. And they will be watching closely to see that police co-operate with the independent watchdog, Eby said.

Ontario has used an arms-length watchdog to conduct investigations into police-involved deaths since 1990, but it has come under fire for having too close a relationship with police.

Alberta has its own oversight unit similar to Ontario, while Nova Scotia appointed its first watchdog in September. Quebec has said it is considering the same.

The IIO in B.C. replaces a provincial police complaints commission that had no oversight of RCMP, which polices most of the province.

Dene Moore reports for the Canadian Press.

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