Arrest death probes too slow
Police complaint commissioner calls for streamlining investigations
into police-related deaths
by Kim Bolan, Vancouver Sun, Sep 20, 2006
In-custody and police-involved deaths are taking too long to investigate and the public does not have confidence in officers reviewing their own conduct in these cases, says B.C.'s police complaint commissioner. Dirk Ryneveld said the system does not provide timely answers in cases like the shooting death of 22-year-old Ian Bush while in police custody last year. "It takes too long. The system is too bogged down. It needs to be more streamlined," Ryneveld said.
Coroners service statistics provided to The Vancouver Sun indicate there have been 111 in-custody or police-related deaths in B.C. since 2000. Between 2000 and 2004, the coroners service determined that six of the deaths were homicides, 21 were suicides in custody, 37 were accidental and 21 were described as "undetermined." Most of those who died in the five-year period were men. There were five deaths in the drunk tank, 11 shootings and four deaths after tasers were used.
No inquests have yet been announced for many of the 17 files opened by the coroners service in 2005, or any of the 11 cases from the first eight months of this year. Coroner Jeff Dolan said the delay in holding inquests is simply because the agency holds off until other investigations are complete. "If there are any other proceedings ongoing, whether they be criminal or otherwise -- primarily criminal -- we won't go forward," Dolan said. "There may be a number of issues that would delay us from setting an inquest date at an early stage of our inquiry."
Ryneveld conceded that the public does not have confidence in police investigating themselves in cases where someone dies in custody or while being arrested. "Sometimes it is not the lack of independence, but the perception of the lack of independence that is a problem," Ryneveld said.
The issue of in-custody deaths is one of the key topics to be discussed at an international conference in Vancouver beginning Oct. 2 organized by the Canadian Association of Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement, of which Ryneveld is president. Ryneveld's counterpart at the federal level -- Paul Kennedy of the Commission for Public Complaints Against the RCMP -- will speak at the conference, as will other interested parties, including law enforcement representatives. Ryneveld has urged the provincial government to make legislative changes that he says would provide "more effective oversight mechanisms" that would give the public more confidence in the complaints process. Ryneveld has jurisdiction over municipal police forces in B.C., the Combined Forces Special Enforcement Unit, the transit police and some tribal police agencies. The Commission for Public Complaints Against the RCMP handles investigations related to RCMP jurisdictions in B.C. The long investigative delays are being criticized by family members and their advocates.
Ian Bush's mother, Linda Bush, has just amended her civil suit against the RCMP to include the issue of systemic delays in resolving cases like that of her son. The amended statement of claim accuses the attorney-general and solicitor-general of deliberately failing "to take any steps to deal with the widespread and systemic delays." "They both knew or were reckless or willfully blind to the fact that the delays would cause psychological and emotional trauma to the plaintiff including mental distress, anger, depression and anxiety," the new court documents say.
Ian Bush died last October after being arrested for having an open beer outside a Houston hockey arena. Just 20 minutes later he was dead, shot in the back of the head.
RCMP Const. Paul Koester said he was the victim of a vicious assault by Bush, and that he shot Bush in self-defence.
Nearly 10 months after the incident, the Crown said no charges will be laid against Koester. Solicitor-General John Les said last week that he's satisfied the process B.C. has for investigating in-custody deaths is adequate, especially given that the coroner looks at each case. But he said nothing about the fact that many of the inquests are not held for years after the original incidents.
The Bush inquest is scheduled for December, nearly 14 months after his death. But according to coroners service statistics, many other inquests into in-custody or police-involved cases are not held for two years or more. An inquest for Rhonda Lee Schwartz, who died Feb. 18, 2004, as she was being taken into custody by Vancouver police was held on Jan. 16, 2006. An inquest into the death of Terrance Brian Hanna was held in Burnaby in January 2006, almost three years after the drug-user was tasered during his arrest. He later died in hospital. The family of Kevin St. Arnaud, who was a suspect in a Vanderhoof break-in when he was shot by police, has been looking for answers for almost two years. While the coroners service announced an inquest would be held, it has not been scheduled. In the meantime, the Commission for Public Complaints Against the RCMP has announced it will look at St. Arnaud's case. Earlier this month, an inquest was held into the death of Robert Bagnall, who died after being Tasered on June 23, 2004.
Coroner Dolan said the coroners service does have a process to follow up on the conclusions of inquests. "Our recommendations aren't binding but we do want to follow up and see what the response was of that agency," Dolan said. "If the coroner and jury identify that it is a systemic issue or something that is province-wide, then the recommendation will be on a much broader scale."
Custody/police-related deaths in B.C.:
2000 - 15; 2001 - 12; 2002 - 21; 2003 - 19; 2004 - 16; 2005 - 17; 2006 - 11
Taser death by cops really brutal (victim had hands up surrendering). Vancouver Sun, Nov 15, 2007
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