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Pain and Doubt Persist in Houston

Family suing to learn evidence used to clear officer in son's death.

By Enid Godtree 13 Sep 2006 | TheTyee.ca

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Ian Bush was 22.

Nine months of waiting finally came to an end for Ian Bush's family. Wally Oppal, B.C. attorney general, announced that the RCMP officer who shot and killed their son would not be charged. According to the prosecutor's report on the case, the shooting was in self-defence.

But a week after that announcement, questions resonate in the small forestry community where the killing occurred, the dead man's family is suing the officer and branches of the B.C. government, and civil libertarians are saying the case may help force a shift in the way police departments are themselves policed.

Bush, a 22-year-old resident of Houston, west of Prince George, was arrested on Oct. 29, 2005, for giving a false name after being caught outside a hockey arena with open alcohol. Twenty minutes later he was dead from a single gunshot to the back of the head. According to an RCMP press release following the incident and the prosecutor's report, Bush became violent near the end of his detention period and was then shot by a lone RCMP officer, later identified as Const. Paul Koester, in an RCMP interrogation room.

The RCMP followed up with an internal investigation closed to public scrutiny, which, according to the lawyer for the Bush family, Howard Rubin, went to Crown counsel in Prince George at the end of June. The investigation took nine months.

But Bush family members are still trying to get answers to how their son, considered to be a mild-mannered mill worker, ended up dead. They have repeatedly asked to know: what exactly happened? What did their son say or do?

The RCMP, however, has refused to comment on this case or any of the details surrounding it.

Accusations of arrogance

When Gary Mason writing for The Globe and Mail pressed the RCMP media department about certain facts that the public has a right to know, Const. John Ward stated, "The public doesn't have a right to know anything."

Jason Gratl of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association feels that this type of response speaks to an institutional arrogance within the RCMP. "It's deplorable and reprehensible...and underlines concerns about the unfettered powers of the RCMP," he said.

Nine months is an unusually long time for an investigation. Gratl pointed out that his organization filed a formal complaint about how long the case was taking. After initially avoiding the complaint, the RCMP quashed it using a rarely-used provision of the RCMP Act.

Nathaniel Cullen, NDP MP for the Buckley-Skeena Valley, stated in an interview that he felt that the length of the investigation was uncommon for the type of case involved. "For issues involving many witnesses...or the mafia, you might see this," he said. However, for the Bush case, with only one witness to the shooting and few people involved, he felt the length was unusual. Cullen had repeatedly tried to obtain information on behalf of both the Bush family and his constituents. According to Cullen, he was first told that the investigation would take roughly six weeks but "eight months later, here we are."

Cullen also stated that the RCMP has expressed no remorse over the stress that this length of time has put on the family. The case is dividing Houston, where, according to Cullen, a tremendous amount of speculation and finger-pointing has occurred towards other RCMP officers and their families.

As well, the issue of time and the lack of information have caused some to ask whether the RCMP might be trying to influence the outcome of this case.

Oppal said that after reviewing the case file put together by the Criminal Justice Branch he fully supported the decision not to lay charges.

Investigative process questioned

But many people have been raising concerns about how the investigation was conducted.

An internal investigation by the RCMP in Prince George was launched involving two or three officers.

Gratl feels that at this point the commissioner should have appointed an overseer to reassure the public there would be no "cooking of the evidence." Normally the case then should have gone to Prince George Crown counsel; this case was instead handed to an investigation team in New Westminster.

A handful of journalists brought attention to the fact that another case involving the death of a youth in custody is under internal investigation by the RCMP. The unit under investigation? New Westminster RCMP.

As Mason wrote on an online question-and-comment session at theglobeandmail.ca, "What do you think the chances are that the New Westminster police team charged with reviewing the RCMP's own report into the actions of its own officer in the Ian Bush shooting are going to contradict the results of that report? Zero."

This is not the first complaint involving RCMP transparency. The RCMP Complaints Commission, which oversees the RCMP, slammed the B.C. RCMP in 2005, claiming that repeated requests for documents were being ignored and crucial information was being withheld.

In the case of the Houston shooting, there has been speculation that, contrary to RCMP policy, Const. Koester was left alone in the room with Bush, even though he had been on the job for only five months. And further speculation that, contrary to policy, the audio and video recording equipment in the interrogation room was not turned on.

Still, the RCMP has refused to explain what RCMP policy is in this situation. Cullen claims he is being denied information due an elected official. And Gratl charges that the commission process has been undermined.

Lawsuit in the works

For the Bush family, the issue is far from closed. They have filed a lawsuit against Const. Koester, the B.C. solicitor general and the B.C. attorney general.

Gratl and the BCCLA see wider effects arising from this case. Gratl said that this case, coupled with the soon-to-be-released Arar report, may be "setting the stage for reform for both the B.C. Police Act as well as the RCMP Act."

When asked what type of reform he'd like to see, Gratl responded that a "body for independent investigation for complaints is needed...one with adequate power."

Cullen echoed the call for reform, claiming that Mounties should be investigated by an external organization in the same manner as the Ontario Provincial Police.

Until that time, the Bush family will keep waiting for answers and coming to grips with the death of their son.

In the meantime, Const. Koester has been transferred to Kamloops but not taken off the job since the shooting.

Enid Godtree is a Vancouver-based journalist who works seasonally in Houston, B.C.  [Tyee]

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