Greg Matters' Prince George RCMP Shooting Marks Office's First Test

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UPDATE: The shooting victim has been identified as 40-year-old Gregory Matters.

VANCOUVER - The investigation skills of British Columbia's newly-minted police watchdog are being tested early after it was dispatched to its first fatal officer-involved shooting on the same day it opened its doors.

Only hours after the Independent Investigations Office announced on Monday it was fully operational, a team of 10 investigators was deployed to a rural property southeast of Prince George, B.C.

They were responding to a call by the city's RCMP force, who notified them a suspect had been shot and killed by one of their own Mounties.

The police-involved nature of the incident means the outside agency is now responsible for determining what happened.

Until this week, such a death would have been probed by other police.

"The reality is we certainly would have no idea of knowing when our first case would be. It just so happened it was on opening day," said watchdog spokesman Owen Court.

"We're quite pleased that we received very timely notification, that our investigative teams were trained and equipped, and when we called they answered."

Police forces in B.C. have long been criticized for lacking impartiality when they've conducted investigations of other police-involved incidents.

The mandate of the Independent Investigations Office is to examine scenarios where someone dies or there is other serious harm done under the watch of the cops.

Court said team members recognizes this is their first chance at showing the public their capabilities.

"It is our first case and there is some learning involved here," he said. "Without a doubt the most important thing is a thorough and competent investigation."

Rob Gordon, a criminologist at Simon Fraser University, said regardless of the circumstances this investigation will be significant for the outside agency.

"All eyes will be on it, and therefore it is probably going to be an important proving ground for the independent office on a number of levels," he said.

Criteria by which the office's performance will be judged includes whether it can conduct an independent and impartial investigation, how quickly staff respond and bring it to conclusion, and whether staff have the right skills to do the job while maintaining reasonable costs.

"Who guards the guardian?" Gordon asked. "There really isn't any way of telling whether or not these guys do a better job, though that's going to be one of the issues in the long run.

"It's too early to say, and on the basis of one investigation, we shouldn't be drawing any conclusions at all."

But the distance between Prince George and the responding staff makes for an interesting scenario, Gordon noted.

"When the scene has to be preserved by the local police, what kind of guarantees are there that the scene will be preserved?" he said.

A day after the shooting, the office was able to provide only limited details about the events that took place. Court could not yet say whether the person who died was a man or a woman.

In a news release sent late Monday, hours after the office was notified, the Prince George RCMP said an undisclosed "serious criminal offence" had occurred in a rural area southeast of the city.

Police set up and held a perimeter as they attempted to locate the suspect believed responsible.

In the early hours of the evening, a Mountie fired at least one shot. A person was killed.

No police were injured.

Court said his office was contacted Monday just after 7:30 p.m. Investigators were dispatched, arriving at the scene just after midnight Tuesday.

No deadlines were immediately set for carrying out the investigation, but Court said the team would not sacrifice timeliness for quality.

The incident becomes the first test, too, for Chief Civilian Director Richard Rosenthal, an American with a reputation for being tough but fair in scrutinizing cases of apparent police wrongdoing. He was hired by the province after setting up similar agencies in two U.S. cities.

It's Rosenthal's job to determine whether any Mounties committed an offence in responding to the situation.

The Independent Investigations Office replaces past practise of police investigating themselves after recommendations from two public inquiries, including the inquiry into Robert Dziekanski's death at Vancouver airport in 2007.

The Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner, meanwhile, which will continue to deal with police misconduct investigations.

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