Pivot Legal Society - Equality Lifts Everyone


Pivot's take on the new head of the IIO - Richard Rosenthal

It was a little surprising to hear the news this morning that Richard Rosenthal, head of Denver’s police oversight agency, would be leaving his job and heading up to B.C. to lead our province's up and coming Independent Investigations Office, but only because it was just yesterday that I was meeting with one of the inspectors from VPD professional standards and neither of us was aware of the upcoming announcement. Pivot was one of the first organizations in B.C. to demand an independent investigations office, and hearing the news of the appointment makes it feel like we are finally making this step in police accountability a reality.  

While it’s not really certain what immediate effect the IIO will have on VPD professional standards division who will continue to investigate minor complaints, a quick look at Rosenthal’s history shows he is not afraid to speak his mind when it comes to discipline, and that news comes as a relief to those striving for a more comprehensive and heightened level of accountability to policing in B.C. From my work I can say that just receiving an acknowledgment of misconduct has been difficult in even the most egregious cases, and the discipline that follows has continually left the public wanting. Perhaps the most encouraging thing from Rosenthal’s track record is his belief that discipline is often the key to public confidence in our police, and he has not been afraid to say it to those in charge.

Rosenthal’s highest profile case remains from his time as a prosecutor in Los Angeles, when he help break one of the biggest police corruption scandals in U.S history, but he is equally known for his insistence that two officers who violently beat a man in Denver’s downtown core should be fired for their actions. That opinion pitted him against the police unions and the head of discipline in Denver, and his decision to trumpet his views in the media (even going on Good Morning America) is in marked contrast with the much more lower-key approach which has been taken by our current Police Complaint Commissioner Stan Lowe. We have been telling Stan for a while that we thought he had earned the right to be more vocal in the press about the problems he sees in the force, but that has never been his style. In Rosenthal, we may be seeing a much more public face on police accountability. 

But that’s where the going will likely get tough for Rosenthal, who will be surprised to find that discipline remains almost squarely within the bounds of the departments, and who notoriously feuded with police unions in both Denver and Portland. Next year we’ll be seeing officers from the Dziekanski inquiry take the stand for charges of perjury, and Rosenthal has rightly taken the stance that when an officer is found to falsify a police report or lie on the stand they must face the threat of being fired. The low level of terminations in B.C. for misconduct has always been shocking, and discipline remains an area in need of desperate reform. In Denver Rosenthal often found himself critizing the disciplinay decisions of an independent government beurocrat, but in B.C. he'll be forced to stare down the police forces and the unions that back them directly. 

Where Rosenthal will likely influence our work the most will be in the stance he takes on the definition of ‘serious harm’. The boundaries of the IIO have still not been clearly defined, and this year we have taken the position that it is time the VPD recognize that the deployment of police dogs needs to be seen as the use of potentially deadly force. Yesterday when I met with the investigator from professional standards he expressed the opinion that he felt most incidents involving police dogs would not be seen as causing ‘serious harm’. We believe we have the pictures and stories to prove otherwise, and hope when Rosenthal arrives he’ll agree. We were notified this week that we’ll be getting a decision on our complaint to the VPD police board on the use of police dogs in January, and while were hopeful this will be at least the beginning of meaningful reform, the threat of external investigation after deployment would go a long way in sending the right message.

Another area where Rosenthal’s appointment may bring hope is our current campaign to change the way we view mental health and policing. Rosenthal focused intently on shootings by police in Portland, and Pivot will be representing the family of Michael Vann Hubbard at the coroner’s inquest into his shooting death by police in 2009. One of the greatest complaints from the family has been the lack of transparency in the investigation, and just this summer there was another police shooting involving a man who was reportedly mentally ill in the Downtown Eastside where the police have provided almost no information to the public. This is the kind of case that urgently needs to be investigated by the IIO, and the consequences of failing to provide information to the public and family should never be underestimated.

All of this isn’t to say that Rosenthal hasn’t had his detractors, and reports from Denver suggest he often found himself at odds with campaigners for greater police accountability as well for voicing the belief that evidence of misconduct is the result of a working system of transparency and accountability and not necessarily evidence of a greater cultural problem. In the end Rosenthal may be seen as a very moderate appointment, but even if he arrives intent on pushing for change he will likely run up against one of the greatest killers of police accountability in recent years, budgetary restriction. The news that B.C. will be running a higher deficit than expected is not encouraging, and one can only hope that the provincial government recognizes that the IIO is not the place to skimp, however history suggests otherwise.

The appointment is certainly a bold move, and one that will invariably shake up policing in B.C. no matter what how successful the office ultimately is. We’ll be looking to make contact with him as soon as he gets settled, and will have a lot more to say as the IIO starts taking shape.