When the perpetrator of a homicide is found at the scene and immediately identified, how long should it take the authorities to conclude their investigation and make a decision on whether to lay charges, thereby perhaps letting a court determine guilt or innocence?

What is a reasonable period of time for the victim’s family to wait? A day? A few days? A couple of weeks? Maybe a month?

Apparently a lot longer if the assailant is wearing a police uniform.

Consider these recent examples:

On October 22, 2000, Jeff Berg, unarmed, sober, no material criminal record, is confronted by an armed police officer in a Vancouver alley. According to two civilian eyewitnesses, the officer knocks Berg to the ground and kicks him repeatedly as he is lying motionless on the pavement. Berg loses consciousness and dies as a result of a blow to the neck. The autopsy report indicates he was struck or kicked at least ten times in the head. The police officer was completely unscathed. On December 9, 2002, Crown Counsel advises the family that no charges will be laid. More than two years to make a decision…

On June 23, 2004, five police officers respond to a call for medical assistance. Two of them shock Robert Bagnell, unarmed, with 50,000 volts from their Tasers as he lies on the floor of his Vancouver rooming house washroom. His heart stops and he dies. On December 1, 2005, Crown Counsel advises the family that no charges will be laid. A year and a half to make a decision…

On December 19, 2004, an RCMP officer confronts burglary suspect Kevin St. Arnaud, unarmed, in an open field in Vanderhoof. From a reported distance of five metres, the officer fires three bullets into St. Arnaud’s chest, killing him instantly. An eyewitness reports that St. Arnaud raised both hands before the first shot was fired. On December 5, 2005, Crown Counsel advises the family that he hopes to make a decision on charges by the end of January, 2006. A year has passed, and the family is still waiting for a decision on charges…

If the shoe were on the other foot, how long would it take? In the latter case, if St. Arnaud had shot a police officer, he would have been charged in a matter of hours. If the incident had involved two civilians, a decision on charges would have been made in a few days, at the most.

It is apparently exceedingly difficult for British Columbia law enforcement authorities to investigate police-involved fatalities and make a prompt decision on whether to lay charges. I have some suggestions to make it easier,quicker and most importantly, fairer for all concerned.

First, police should not investigate police in these circumstances. Like Ontario and other jurisdictions, we should have an independent body with the authority to fully investigate fatalities. Second, the charge approval decision should always be made by a special prosecutor, a lawyer independent of Crown Counsel, to avoid any perception that Crown Counsel, who routinely work with police in all other prosecutions, display any favouritism. Finally, the Coroners Service must reform its approach to these cases. All fatalities occurring in police custody require coroner’s inquests to be held, as they should. The inquests, fact-finding in nature, must be held quickly, and the evidence disclosed forwarded to the special prosecutor to assist in the charge approval decision process.

The public and the victims’ families deserve a better system than the one we’ve got.