When B.C. police investigate other officers for misconduct, verdicts aren’t as transparent as they are in courtrooms.
The Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner (OPCC), the province’s independent civilian oversight body for complaints against B.C.’s 11 municipal forces, said July 7 it is overseeing a Vancouver Police Department investigation into alleged racism by eight former and current Nelson Police Department (NPD) officers.
The OPCC doesn’t lay criminal charges. Instead, reprimands, suspensions or severance are disciplinary options for infractions under the provincial Police Act. Because the allegations against Nelson police aren’t considered criminal, the investigation may never disclose the names of officers even if they are found to have breached the Police Act.
Here’s how the investigation and possible disciplinary process may play out:
• An OPCC spokesperson told the Nelson Star that investigations are typically completed in six months, but extensions can be authorized to ensure they are thorough and complete. Because the investigation was ordered on Feb. 3 by NPD Chief Donovan Fisher, Vancouver police may conclude their investigation in August at the earliest.
• If Vancouver police determine there is enough evidence to warrant misconduct, then a high-ranking officer at another department is named the disciplinary authority and tasked with making recommendations. This requires more time, with no set deadline on a decision.
• If Nelson police are cleared, the matter is dropped. If they aren’t and officers are disciplined, confidentiality provisions in the Police Act would mean both current and retired officers’ names are still not made public.
That was the case in 2019 when two Nelson officers were found guilty of misconduct on separate issues, but their identities were not disclosed.
There are also three scenarios that end in public disclosure of the case’s details including two in which officers’ names can be made public. All three require the commissioner to first find fault with the disciplinary authority’s ruling of no misconduct.
1) The commissioner requests a review under section 117 of the Police Act, wherein a retired judge is appointed to re-evaluate the case and the decision of the disciplinary authority if they find there was no misconduct. (The Police Act requires the judge make a decision within 10 business days of receipt of reviewable materials.)
Officers’ names remain anonymous but the details of the investigation as well as discipline are made public.
This occurred in a 2019 decision involving an off-duty Nelson officer following a domestic dispute. The discipline authority found there had been no discreditable conduct on the part of the officer, but the commissioner disagreed and requested a review. Retired judge Wally Oppal then mandated the officer receive counselling and a written reprimand.
2) A retired judge may also be asked to conduct a Review on the Record. That occurs when the commissioner has reason to believe a decision by the disciplinary authority is incorrect whether or not they determined misconduct, or further review is in the public interest.
These reviews are considered public and can lead to the disclosure of officers’ names.
3) The commissioner can also initiate a public hearing adjudicated by a retired judge instead of a review on the record. This can occur if more evidence than what was submitted is necessary to complete the review.
It also occurs if the commissioner believes a hearing is “required to preserve or restore public confidence in the investigation of misconduct or the administration of police discipline,” according to the Police Act. Officers aren’t compelled to testify at these hearings, but their names are made public as well as verdicts.
Officers can also request public hearings if they face a demotion or dismissal handed out by the discipline authority.
The OPCC received 583 complaints about officer conduct in 2020-2021, according to its latest annual report. Those complaints led to 62 investigations, 41 of which were requested by the member’s police department, and included 13 reviews by a retired judge.