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Rights + Justice

RCMP Officer Testifies about Mistakes in Burns Lake Investigation

‘I shouldn’t have done it,’ Cpl. Bill Larsen, then a rookie, said about asking sexual assault victim for a polygraph.

Amanda Follett Hosgood 6 Jun 2023The Tyee

Amanda Follett Hosgood is The Tyee’s northern B.C. reporter. She lives in Wet’suwet’en territory. Find her on Twitter @amandajfollett.

Nearly 14 years ago, as Bill Larsen prepared for his first posting with the RCMP, he felt ambivalent.

He was being sent to Burns Lake, a northern B.C. community of about 1,700 residents, many of them Indigenous. As a white police officer, he expected to face “racism” and “discrimination” from local First Nations as a result of their historical relationship with the RCMP, he told a Canadian Human Rights Tribunal last week.

“It sounded like it was a pretty wild place to police. Lots of violence,” Larsen said in response to questions from Department of Justice lawyer Mitchell Taylor, which is representing the RCMP. “I was excited to start my career, but I was not as excited to tell my wife that’s where we were going.”

Larsen’s reservations about the small town would prove unfounded. As he testified before the tribunal, he described the people in Burns Lake, and particularly the First Nations community, as genuine and honest. “I was completely wrong. I actually really enjoyed my time up there,” he said.

Larsen had been in the position less than three years when, on July 11, 2012, Beverly Abraham arrived at the Burns Lake detachment to report childhood sexual abuse at a local school. Abraham, who is from the Lake Babine Nation, testified earlier in the hearings that she left the interview feeling disbelieved and retraumatized after the officer asked her to take a polygraph, also known as a lie-detector test.

In his testimony, Larsen expressed regret with some of the decisions he’d made in his initial interview with Abraham, blaming his inexperience as a junior police officer. He said more RCMP training about interviewing victims and witnesses of historical abuse would have been helpful.

“I believe there were some shortcomings,” he said. “The polygraph thing is definitely something I shouldn’t have done. What I should have done is looked at getting a second opinion from someone more experienced.”

Within days of taking Abraham’s statement, Larsen was removed from the case when it was transferred to North District’s General Investigations Section in Prince George.

Larsen is now the head of the Kamloops RCMP’s sex crimes unit.

Larsen was the first RCMP witness to testify at a human rights inquiry into the force’s investigation of physical, sexual and emotional abuse at two northern B.C. schools. Six complainants, all from the Lake Babine Nation, say the RCMP discriminated against them when it investigated a former teacher, whose name is shielded under a publication ban, at Immaculata Elementary School in Burns Lake and Prince George College.

It was Abraham’s report to Burns Lake RCMP that launched the investigation now under review. On July 13, 2012, two days after she gave her statement to Larsen, senior officers circulated an internal briefing note titled, “Allegation of historical sexual assault against prominent Canadian.” It described positions held by the alleged abuser, who taught physical education at the schools in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and honours bestowed on him.

“Should the allegation(s) be substantiated, the entire matter will likely be linked to the greater issue of First Nations and Native Residential Schools,” said the briefing note, which was shared with the tribunal. “If substantiated and once in the public domain, this matter will garner significant media attention.”

B.C. is one of two provinces where, rather than laying charges, police investigate and refer a charge recommendation to Crown counsel. BC Prosecution Service then makes a decision about whether to proceed with charges based on the likelihood of conviction and whether charges are in the public interest.

The RCMP investigation concluded after 18 months without recommending charges. The allegations against the former teacher, who is referred to as A.B. in tribunal documents, have never been tested in court and he has fiercely denied them.

A sometimes-heated cross-examination

On that July morning, when Abraham called the detachment upset and crying, the constable who took the call arranged for her to meet with Larsen early that afternoon. Before meeting with her, Larsen did a background check on Abraham, something he described as “typical.”

When Abraham arrived at the detachment, she appeared eager to tell her story, Larsen testified. He described how he tried to parse her history and her motivations for coming forward, 40 years after the alleged abuse. He wanted to eliminate any holes in her story, he said.

But he believed the story lacked credibility, he testified. He gave several reasons.

“She went into how this has impacted her life,” Larsen testified, adding that he found it unusual that Abraham would disclose that she had turned to drugs and alcohol as a result of trauma. “That was kind of weird but, again, people deal with trauma differently,” he said.

He also found it odd, he testified, that Abraham had read her alleged abuser’s biography. He believed that the lack of detail she provided about the sexual assault, in contrast to detailed descriptions she provided about physical abuse she alleged she experienced at the hands of the former teacher, made the more serious allegations less believable.

“It just seemed that her descriptions of the sex assaults were very brief,” he said. “That could have been more my lack of experience in trying to break those things down, but those were concerns.”

He believed the investigation hinged on corroborating Abraham’s story, he testified, and he focused on pinning down a timeline of the abuse in order to speak with other witnesses.

“At the end of the day, what you need is corroboration. That is incredibly important in historic sex assaults,” Larsen said. “You gain evidence in that interview that you can corroborate in the field by talking to other people.”

Cpl. Quinton Mackie, who took over as lead investigator on the case on July 18, 2012, called Abraham in December 2013 and told her police would not be recommending charges because there was “no evidence to corroborate any of the information provided,” according to the officer’s notes shared with the tribunal.

During a sometimes-heated cross-examination, Karen Bellehumeur, lawyer for the complainants, pressed Larsen on his reasons for requesting the polygraph and his belief that Abraham’s statement lacked credibility. She suggested it was contradictory to use Abraham’s disclosure about substance abuse to discredit the story.

“If you believe that the impact on her life might be true, then why in the world are you asking for a polygraph?” she asked. “Why would that be a basis for you to think, ‘I need to do a polygraph,’ when the only standard that you need to send it to the Crown [is] reasonable and probable grounds? It’s certainly not proof beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Larsen testified that he believed he was being “proactive” by asking for the polygraph, something Bellehumeur said Larsen suggested 11 times during his interview with Abraham. Polygraphs can be unreliable, and are not accepted as evidence in criminal trials.

Bellehumeur accused the officer of lying to Abraham when he told her that a defence counsel could force her to take the test. The police officer admitted that he didn’t “know the legalities.”

“The fact that you’re bringing it up is making me think I’m wrong,” he said.

Bellehumeur also asked Larsen if he was aware of “incremental disclosure,” a principle by which victims of traumatic abuse disclose details over time as they build trust. In response to Larsen finding it odd that Abraham would read her alleged abuser’s biography, Bellehumeur called the belief that a victim would never want to engage with their abuser or learn more about them “a myth that’s been discredited by courts.”

“Please tell me that now, as the director of a sexual assault unit, that you understand that some victims might want to see their perpetrator, that everyone acts differently after being sexually violated. Do you have that understanding now?” Bellehumeur asked.

Larsen said he’s aware that everyone responds differently to trauma.

“I understood that then, I just understand it better now,” he said. “That’s news to me as far as the victim wanting to know more about their perpetrator. As a police officer, I’m constantly learning.”

Larsen testified that he focused on the sexual abuse allegations, rather than the physical abuse, because he believed there may have been a statute of limitations on “the disciplinary stuff.”

Bellehumeur also disputed the officer’s framing of Abraham’s allegations of physical abuse as “disciplinary.”

A video of Abraham’s statement to Larsen, played earlier in the tribunal hearings, showed her “weeping and banging things,” Bellehumeur said, when the officer left her alone in the interview room. She suggested to Larsen that it was “completely lost” on him how upset Abraham was.

Larsen confirmed he had no idea until he reviewed the video just weeks ago.

“I’d do things differently now,” he testified. “It’s just a lack of experience.”

Christine Singh, counsel for the Canadian Human Rights Commission, which is a party in the inquiry, asked Larsen about a 2011 RCMP report on the force’s history with Indian Residential Schools and related training. Larsen couldn’t recall if he’d read the document and struggled to remember the details of courses related to human rights and investigative interviewing that he’d taken a decade ago.

Larsen agreed that additional training on interviewing victims of historical abuse would have been helpful when taking Abraham’s statement but added that it might not have overcome the challenges with collecting enough evidence to help secure a conviction.

Singh suggested that getting witness corroboration is “more of a policy than a legal requirement” and asked if Larsen was aware of Bill C-127 which removed the need for corroborative evidence in historical sexual assault cases in 1983.

“I was not aware of that,” Larsen replied.

The week wrapped up with the Department of Justice lawyers, which are representing the RCMP at the inquiry, questioning RCMP Sgt. Quinton Mackie, who took over the investigation from Larsen. Mackie’s testimony resumes next week. The inquiry is expected to run until June 22.  [Tyee]

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