Last year, 64 people died in incidents involving police in B.C.
That’s an eightfold increase over a decade ago, when the Independent Investigations Office of BC was created in response to the Braidwood Commission, which reviewed police actions after Robert Dziekański died while being taken into custody at Vancouver airport in 2007.
In 2012, the year the IIO began its work, and again in 2013, the independent police watchdog investigated eight deaths involving police. The next year and the year after that, in 2014 and 2015, it was a dozen each year. The number rose steadily in the years that followed, peaking at 76 police-involved deaths in 2020 and dipping to 54 the following year before rising again last year.
When asked about the increase, IIO chief civilian director Ron MacDonald said it’s a question he hears a lot. “I don’t have an answer,” he said. “I wish I did.”
MacDonald, who comes from a legal background, joined the IIO in late 2017 and said he can’t speak to numbers prior to that or how the organization may have been cataloguing its investigations. But he confirmed that in the five years since he joined the office, the number of cases it investigates has roughly doubled.
The organization is authorized under B.C.'s Police Act to investigate all police incidents that result in serious harm or death. MacDonald said what has remained constant is the split between the two, with serious harm making up about 70 per cent of the IIO’s investigations and incidents involving death accounting for the rest.
He added that police shootings are “significantly up” this fiscal year, with 23 incidents reported since the start of April. The average annual number in B.C. is seven, he said.
“That’s a dramatic number — more than triple — but I don’t know why,” he said.
MacDonald speculated that impacts of the pandemic on mental health could play a role. He said in more than half of the police shootings, the suspect was either confirmed or believed to have a weapon. The high number of people threatening police is “unusual,” he said.
“What do we attribute that to? Again, I don’t know. But I’m suspecting it has something to do with the impact of the pandemic on the mental health of our population,” he said. “There’s no question that mental wellness plays a role in the vast majority of our cases.”
The IIO oversees the BC RCMP, municipal police forces, Metro Vancouver Transit Police and the Stl’atl’imx Tribal Police Service. It does not investigate incidents that occur in the custody of BC Corrections officers or in federal prisons.
Last year, about 75 per cent of police-related deaths involved the RCMP, with the remainder involving municipal police forces. That roughly aligns with the percentage of the population the RCMP polices, with the force saying 72 per cent of B.C. citizens fall under its jurisdiction.
In an email, Sgt. Kris Clark, senior media relations officer with the RCMP, differentiated between in-custody deaths — defined by the RCMP as a fatality that occurs while a person is physically restrained or legally obligated to comply with police — and incidents investigated by the IIO, which occur any time police are present.
As a result, the number of in-custody deaths reported by RCMP varied dramatically from police-involved fatalities investigated by the IIO. In Canada, an average 20 people die in RCMP custody annually, a number that includes an average eight fatal police shootings every year, Clark said. Almost 25 per cent of those 20 deaths were reported as being related to drug and alcohol toxicity, he added.
“Ultimately, there is no single factor that can be addressed to eliminate [in-custody deaths] as the public-safety needs of our communities are ever-changing and evolving,” he said. “Policing is an inherently dangerous profession and our officers are asked to deal with violent subjects, overdose victims, mental health crises and everything in between, to keep our communities safe.”
Clark said that officers are trained in first aid, carry tourniquets and naloxone kits, and practice crisis intervention de-escalation techniques. He added that 99.9 per cent of all police interactions are “resolved without injury, death or even the use of police intervention options.”
He also noted that, of the cases investigated by the IIO, most concluded that there were no grounds for charges against the officers involved. He also said calls for service to the BC RCMP have increased 12 per cent over the past decade.
Meenakshi Mannoe, criminalization and policing campaigner with Pivot Legal Society, agreed there is no single factor contributing to the rise in serious police incidents reported to the IIO.
“It’s hard to point to one concrete thing, but there’s clearly a number of systemic issues at play,” she said. She said the poisoned drug crisis — a health emergency overlapping with the pandemic — presents an increased risk for those who use criminalized substances when taken into custody, whether due to overdose or withdrawal.
“So, it could be a function of inadequate health care and inadequate access to safe supply when people are being taken into custody,” she said.
But she also pointed to the degree of force used by police as a possible factor, something that’s been under increased public scrutiny since the high-profile death of George Floyd in Minneapolis three years ago at the hands of police.
“I think, across Canada, it’s clear that use of force is on the rise, including fatal use of force,” Mannoe said.
In a May 2022 mandate letter to RCMP commissioner Brenda Lucki, federal Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino asked the force to prohibit the use of neck restraints “in any circumstance” and tear gas or rubber bullets for crowd control.
Last month, the RCMP responded that it would not ban the carotid control technique, a type of neck hold, which was scrutinized following George Floyd’s death. It hasn’t said if it will stop using CS gas, a type of potent tear gas, or sponge bullets, a kind of foam rubber bullets.
Mannoe said northern and Indigenous communities in particular have been affected by serious police incidents in recent years.
“Why is this happening in northern communities and an astonishing rate, particularly impacting Indigenous people?” she said. “I think obviously systemic racism is at play.”
In December, the IIO recommended charges against officers involved in the death of Wet’suwet’en man Jared Lowndes in Campbell River in 2021. Two weeks ago, the BC Prosecution Service also announced it would proceed with charges against five Prince George RCMP officers in connection with the in-custody death of Dale Culver, who was Wet’suwet’en and Gitxsan, in 2017.
According to the IIO’s most recent annual report, the number of investigations per capita in the north was 50 per cent higher than the province’s next highest region, which was the southeast.
“The existence of the RCMP is undermining efforts at reconciliation or safety for Indigenous women and girls because they’re so mired in this kind of toxic operation,” Mannoe said. “I don’t think at this point the RCMP can actually be reformed to address the safety issues that it perpetuates.”
She said governments should instead look to defund and dismantle the force, moving the resources to culturally safe crisis response.
Mannoe added that being in police custody creates distressing circumstances that could lead to self harm — something confirmed in the IIO’s annual report, which showed 44 per cent of deaths investigated by the IIO were self-inflicted.
Other categories include motor vehicle incidents, medical emergencies and firearms.
Despite the significant increase in calls for investigations into police conduct, resources allocated to the IIO have not kept pace.
In its first full year of operation almost a decade ago, the IIO’s annual budget was just over $7 million. In the past five years that MacDonald has been at the helm, it has gone from $8 million to just over $9 million, he said. This represents a roughly 27 per cent increase over 10 years.
“I think inflation alone would suggest that’s not enough of an increase, but our caseload has almost doubled,” MacDonald said.
Staffing increased by just 28 per cent over the past decade, from 50 staff when it began operations to 64 staff last year, according to annual reports. But staff retention is an issue, MacDonald said. The job is difficult, requiring investigators to leave their homes in the middle of the night to attend to police incidents. They aren’t paid overtime or offered competitive wages, he said.
Out of 30 investigator positions, 19 are currently filled. Ideally, the office would have 36 investigators, MacDonald added.
“In my view, a body such as the IIO should be an elite investigative body because the work we do is very challenging and at the forefront of the public’s interest. It should be resourced to allow that to occur,” he said. “We have half the number [of investigators] to deal with twice the number of cases.”
In addition to better wages and compensation, MacDonald said the IIO needs to broaden its hiring pool.
When the organization began, its vision was to staff the office with investigators who had never worked in law enforcement. Current hiring restrictions prevent it from hiring anyone who has served as a B.C. police officer in the past five years.
MacDonald would like to see that change.
Last spring, B.C. Premier David Eby, who at that time was the province’s attorney general, indicated he would consider temporarily lifting the restriction. Eby had previously supported the same request from the IIO, allowing the office to hire former police officers during a two-year period between 2019 and 2021.
It hired four new officers at that time, MacDonald said. A handful of others turned down job offers for more desirable positions elsewhere.
Not only are current hiring policies limiting, they aren’t necessary, MacDonald said. About two-thirds of IIO investigations currently before the Crown were investigated by former police officers. “The numbers don’t support the notion that they can’t appropriately investigate police,” he said.
The IIO is on track for another busy year in 2023.
By the end of last week, police had referred a dozen incidents to the investigative body since the start of January. Three of them are police-involved deaths, including a man who reportedly died after being shot by Vancouver police near Granville Street Bridge last Thursday.
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