Columnist Ian Mulgrew doesn’t pull his punches when he writes about legal issues, and he landed an uppercut right on the button when he criticized the Crown’s “dithering” in a case arising from a fatal accident involving a member of the RCMP (“Prosecutors drag feet on whether to charge cop in biker’s death”; The Vancouver Sun, November 18, 2009). The way the criminal justice system handles fatality cases involving police officers is an affront to the bedrock principle that the system must treat everyone equally and operate without fear or favouritism.

Mulgrew’s example, the case arising from the tragic death of Orion Hutchinson in October of 2008, is not an isolated example of the interminable and unconscionable delays inherent in the investigations of fatalities involving the actions of BC police officers. Take the death of Jeff Berg, an unarmed man who died October 22, 2000 after being beaten and kicked by a Vancouver police officer. Although there was no doubt who was involved in the homicide and what had happened, Crown Counsel did not make its decision that charges would not be appropriate until December 9, 2002, more than two years later. Or how about the case of Kevin St. Arnaud, an unarmed man shot by a Mountie in Vanderhoof on December 19, 2004. After receiving the RCMP’s investigative report, the Crown decided charges were not appropriate on February 15, 2006, nearly 14 months later. Or the case of Ian Bush, the young Houston man shot in the back of the head by a Mountie in the Houston RCMP detachment office on October 29, 2005. Again, the RCMP investigated itself and the Crown finally decided on September 5, 2006 that charges were not appropriate. As if those cases don’t prove the point, there’s the case of Robert Dziekanski, whose death on October 14, 2007 was captured on the notorious videotape that’s reverberated around the world. There was no mystery as to what had occurred and who was involved. Yet it wasn’t until December 12, 2008 that Crown spokesman Stan Lowe (now the BC Police Complaint Commissioner) announced the prosecutors’ decision, widely scorned by critics, that nobody would be charged.

Had any of these cases involved just ordinary civilians, the Crown would have made charge approval decisions within a matter of hours, not months or years.

Delay is one thing, the quality of the eventual decisions is quite another. As far as I have been able to tell from my research, BC Crown Counsel (unlike those in other jurisdictions) have never prosecuted a police officer for an offence arising from a death caused by the intentional application of force. That suggests either that BC police have achieved a level of perfection not found elsewhere or that our criminal justice system is deeply flawed in the way it addresses such cases.

There is a widespread perception that BC police are above the law, that the system treats them differently than it treats ordinary citizens. The solution to this serious problem is simple and right in front of our collective noses. The public must demand that cases of death or serious injury arising from the actions of police officers are immediately investigated by trained civilians. We must also insist that prosecutorial decisions are handled by independent lawyers who do not work with the police on a routine basis. Nothing less than these two basic reforms will restore public faith in our legal system.