The deaths of Raymond Silverfox and Robert Stone are fueling public discussion about who should investigate potential police wrongdoing.
Silverfox’s death was investigated by an Outside RCMP detachment.
Stone’s death in a Whitehorse detox facility is being investigated by the Medicine Hat Police Service.
New Democrat MP Nathan Cullen has introduced a private members bill that would create an independent civilian investigation service for police.
The service would investigate the circumstances surrounding the death of, or the occurrence of serious bodily harm to, any person while in police custody.
Bill 472 was introduced in November 2009, in response to the in-custody deaths of Robert Dziekanski and Ian Bush.
In 2007, Dziekanski died after being Tasered five times by RCMP at the Vancouver International Airport.
In 2005, Bush died from a single gunshot wound to the back of the head. He was alone in an interrogation room with Const. Paul Koester at the time.
In both cases, initial investigations were conducted by police and questions were raised about bias.
And then there are the other in-custody deaths that don’t make national headlines.
“We’ve seen what happens when RCMP investigate themselves,” Cullen said Tuesday, during a news conference in Ottawa.
“We can do better. We need to require full civilian oversight. We need to seize the moment to bring about a sense of justice.”
There are big problems with the current practice of investigation by a separate police force.
Medicine Hat police are investigating the death of Robert Stone, who was detained in an RCMP cell the day before he died in detox.
Now, if Medicine Hat ever has an in-custody death, Whitehorse RCMP may be sent down to investigate, said Cullen.
“They trade off for one another.”
An independent investigation would protect public and police interests.
It allows the public to see justice is done and it protects police from accusations of bias or wrongdoing.
In jurisdictions where there is strong civilian oversight, police are exonerated of any wrongdoing 95 per cent of the time, said Cullen.
“It allows good officers to do good work and restores the public trust.”
If it’s such a good idea what’s the holdup?
“Political will,” said Cullen.
The RCMP and the public both want independent investigations, and the federal Liberals and Bloc Quebecois are behind the New Democrat bill.
“At some point the government has to pick this up and run with it.
“As the system stands right now, there is little hope for Deanna (Lee Charlie, Silverfox’s daughter) and her family.”
Charlie participated in the Ottawa conference by telephone.
“Hearing of my dad’s death was devastating. Listening to how he died was shocking,” she said.
“My dad did not deserve the treatment he got in the last 13 hours of his life.”
Silverfox died after spending 13 hours in an RCMP drunk tank.
An RCMP investigation found none of the officers who interacted with Silverfox that day were criminally responsible.
Days before the coroner’s inquest last month, it was revealed there was an audio recording of the cellblock that day.
In that audio, officers laughed and jeered at Silverfox as he lay on the floor of a cell covered in his own vomit and excrement.
When he asked for a mat to sleep on, one officer responded, “Sleep in your own shit.”
Subsequently, it has been announced five officers are being investigated for breaching their code of conduct.
“My dad will never get to walk me down the aisle, never have grandchildren sit on his lap because police failed to provide care,” said Charlie.
“We should not have to fear the RCMP.”
Territorial NDP Leader Elizabeth Hansen is pushing for a public inquiry into Silverfox’s death.
“The coroner’s inquest sounded like there would be justice, it looks like a court of law, but the recommendations that came out of it are nonbinding,” she said.
“So the recommendations can be totally ignored.”
RCMP play an important role in small communities in the North, said Hansen.
“Because of the nature of that role, they need to be seen to uphold certain values.”
The deaths of Raymond Silverfox and Robert Stone have shaken that foundation of trust.
Then there were the recent events in Watson Lake, with two off-duty officers being charged with sexual assault.
Both officers were acquitted of criminal charges but are being investigated for breaching code of conduct.
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