British Columbia

Outgoing police watchdog boss concerned with charge approval rate

The outgoing director of British Columbia's police watchdog says he is concerned with low charge approval rates against officers investigated by his office.

Ron MacDonald is retiring after 7 years as Independent Investigations Office director

A white man speaks in front of a sign reading 'Independent Investigations Office of BC'.
The outgoing IIO chief civilian director, Ron MacDonald, says that he has raised concerns about low charge approval rates against officers investigated by his office. (Nic Amaya/CBC)

The outgoing director of British Columbia's police watchdog says he is concerned with low charge approval rates against officers investigated by his office.

Ron MacDonald, who is retiring after seven years as civilian director of the Independent Investigations Office (IIO), says fewer than half of the cases he forwarded to Crown prosecutors resulted in charges being approved.

The IIO is a civilian-led police oversight agency that conducts investigations into incidents of serious harm or death that may be the consequence of police actions or inactions.

MacDonald says he has raised his concerns with the province's attorney general, especially as the IIO has previously faced criticism for not having the capacity to hold officers accountable in cases where Indigenous people have been killed by police.

WATCH | MacDonald defends role of B.C.'s police watchdog: 

Outgoing chief of B.C.'s police watchdog says low charge rate a 'real issue'

1 month ago
Duration 1:22
Ron MacDonald, who is departing the Independent Investigations Office after seven years, says he has raised concerns about low charge approval rates against officers investigated by B.C.'s police watchdog.

MacDonald says he is happy with his seven-year tenure, saying he leaves behind a healthy work environment at the agency.

But he says the toughest part of the job is telling families of those killed or injured by police that he will not be referring their cases to the Crown for approval.

"Those are often very, very difficult conversations," he said. "I'll be honest, [they] take quite a bit out of a person."

Over his seven years with the police watchdog, MacDonald oversaw 1,196 investigations, according to an IIO spokesperson. The spokesperson added that preliminary statistics show that 169 new investigations were opened between April 1, 2023, and March 31, 2024.

The director says that of the 39 cases he referred to the Crown for charge approval over the last five years, prosecutors only approved charges against officers in 18 of the cases — which means around a 46 per cent charge approval rate.

The IIO says that none of the cases that it forwarded to the BCPS — and which subsequently went to trial with a not guilty plea — resulted in a conviction.

Two men stand on either side of a women and all have their back to the camera. It is dark out, but the back of their black jackets have reflector tape that spells out IIO. In front of them, is yellow police tape about waist high that says police line do not cross.
MacDonald has long raised concerns that the IIO faces staffing issues. He said that, in retirement, he leaves behind a healthy workplace. (Gian-Paolo Mendoza/CBC)

"Those numbers are quite stark and raise questions," MacDonald said. "Indigenous communities, in particular, are raising those questions.

"I have now raised them publicly, and with the attorney general, in an effort to have it looked at to see if there are improvements that can be made."

Call for independent prosecutors

The IIO was created in 2012 after the Braidwood Inquiry into the police-involved death of Polish immigrant Robert Dziekanski at Vancouver International Airport in 2007, with the inquiry into the death of Frank Paul also being a key factor in the agency's creation.

While the IIO is responsible for investigating police-related incidents resulting in death or serious harm, the B.C. Prosecution Service (BCPS) decides whether it will bring officers' cases before a judge.

MacDonald says the Braidwood Inquiry had also recommended that non-BCPS independent prosecutors be appointed in such cases, something the outgoing director says holds merit.

A white man speaks in front of a row of B.C. flags, with another white man behind him.
Ron MacDonald is seen at the time of his appointment, with Solicitor General Mike Farnworth behind him. (Richard Zussman/CBC)

"I am fully in agreement with that, at least for the reason of perception," he said. "Given that prosecutors work every day with police, it would help the appearance of independence to have independent prosecutors."

A spokesperson for B.C. Attorney General Niki Sharma told CBC News that she had met with MacDonald to discuss his concerns over charge rates.

"While the B.C. Prosecution Service operates independently from government and makes its own decisions on evaluating criminal charges, the government is committed to maintaining confidence in the justice system and addressing systemic racism across the justice system," the spokesperson wrote.

The spokesperson pointed to recommendations from a committee tasked with reforming B.C.'s Police Act, saying the province was reviewing the police oversight system in B.C. "with anticipated changes to the current framework."

"It's crucial that law enforcement officers are held to the highest standards of conduct to maintain public trust," the spokesperson added. "We are committed to consulting directly with Indigenous Peoples and other impacted groups on any proposed changes to address this issue."

MacDonald says he plans to do consultation work after his retirement on Wednesday, as well as potentially getting into screenwriting.

He will be replaced on an interim basis by Sandra Hentzen, who is currently the IIO's chief operating officer. She will be replaced by a permanent appointee in the coming months.

Clarifications

  • An earlier version of this story stated that none of the IIO cases referred to the B.C. Prosecution Service have resulted in a criminal conviction. It has been updated to clarify that all cases that went to trial, with a not guilty plea, have not resulted in a criminal conviction.
    May 08, 2024 3:11 PM PT

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Akshay Kulkarni

Journalist

Akshay Kulkarni is a journalist who has worked at CBC British Columbia since 2021. Based in Vancouver, he has covered breaking news, and written features about the pandemic and toxic drug crisis. He is most interested in data-driven stories. You can email him at akshay.kulkarni@cbc.ca.

With files from Betsy Trumpener