12/07/2011 12:22 EST | Updated 02/06/2012 05:12 EST

American to head B.C. police watchdog that will probe fatal police incidents

VANCOUVER - British Columbia is getting its long-anticipated civilian-led police watchdog off the ground with an American at its helm who has developed a reputation as being tough but fair in scrutinizing cases of apparent police wrongdoing.

The premier announced the appointment of Richard Rosenthal on Wednesday as she followed through on legislation aimed at answering critics who have slammed the practice of police investigating police.

Rosenthal, who has set up similar agencies in two U.S. cities, will lead the Independent Investigations Office that will probe incidents in which police officers seriously injure or kill someone.

Chiefs of police in B.C. and senior RCMP officials have called for the office as a measure to restore public confidence in a province that has been at the centre of a variety of high-profile, police-involved deaths.

"I was referred to in Portland at one point as a 'pro-police moderate.' The idea is I want the police to succeed," Rosenthal told reporters at a news conference in Vancouver.

"So the people of the province can have faith that their officers are doing the job that is expected. And if there is a problem, if there is misconduct ... they will be held accountable."

The body fulfills a key recommendation from retired judge Thomas Braidwood's report into the October 2007 death of Robert Dziekanski, who died after being stunned by an RCMP Taser at Vancouver's airport. The four officers who confronted the Polish man will face trial for perjury starting next year, the result of a massive, year-long inquiry.

Rosenthal's background includes 15 years as deputy district attorney for Los Angeles County. In 2001, he was hired as Portland's first director of the independent police review division and then was hired in 2005 for a similar role in Denver.

One of the reforms Rosenthal introduced in the U.S. was a policy of terminating officers who lied in the course of internal investigations. He also prompted stricter action against Denver officers stopped for drinking and driving, after concluding some were letting fellow cops off the hook

Rosenthal's scope won't be nearly so broad in B.C., but under the Police Act he will have the same power as police forces. He said Wednesday his goal is to conduct impartial, timely investigations in a transparent manner.

Media reports from Denver characterize him as a straight shooter who found himself in the crosshairs of the local police union.

The organization sought to replace him following a series of police officer firings as discipline for misconduct. Six officers were fired in 2011 and three in 2010, according to the Denver Post.

"Unlike some of the (oversight) bodies that have gone wrong before, the one that he was involved with didn't have any inappropriate union ties in the States," said Michael Kempa, a University of Ottawa criminology associate professor who specializes in police oversight.

Ontario has used an arms-length civilian watchdog to conduct investigations into police-involved deaths since 1990, but it has come under fire in recent years for an overly-friendly attitude towards police.

Kempa said police governance can be tricky, especially in an era of strained budgets and an evolving global climate. He said B.C. should anticipate some bumps as it rolls out the new watchdog.

"Go ahead, establish it, try it, keep track of successes and failures. Just getting that public discussion going is going to really be the value of this thing," he said.

Ottawa lawyer Lawrence Greenspon, whose bereaved clients have sued Ontario police officers, said the trouble with such bodies is they don't act with the victim's family in mind.

He said in Ontario, it is unusual for relatives to be handed an official report outlining the results of the investigation.

"If those are going to remain under wraps, then the whole process is still going to be seen as highly suspect and secretive by the people that are affected by it," he said.

He added there's also little incentive for families to co-operate, because the penalties against officers often lack teeth.

Vancouver police union president Tom Stamatakis, who joined Vancouver police and RCMP officials alongside Premier Christy Clark for the announcement, said his organization is confident in the new watchdog.

"I think Richard hit the nail on he head