08/16/2012 08:20 EDT

Richard Rosenthal: BC's Police Watchdog Ready To Shock People

Richard Rosenthal says he's ready to make a mark as B.C.'s first independent police monitor by investigating serious incidents involving officers in a timely and transparent way that the province has not seen before.

After repeated scrutiny over police investigating themselves, the Independent Investigations Office (IIO) is set to take over criminal investigations into all on- and off-duty incidents involving police in B.C. that result in death and serious harm starting Sept. 10. Rosenthal heads the agency which is required to be led by a civilian who has never been a police officer.

The independent body was a major recommendation from the Braidwood Commission which probed the death of Robert Dziekanski who was Tasered by the RCMP at the Vancouver International Airport in 2007.

Rosenthal jumped at the chance to head the IIO but also to live in B.C. which he told The Huffington Post B.C. is “a great place to raise my kids. It’s a great place for everything, for work, for play.” He says he's even given his new chainsaw a spin already.

Rosenthal, who carried a gun while prosecuting gangsters in Los Angeles, created Portland’s first police oversight agency and then made a mark in Denver as its first independent police monitor. He left few fans within the force in Colorado with his no-holds-barred approach to investigating police brutality and calling for stiffer punishments for officers when he saw fit.

Unlike similar agencies in Alberta and Ontario, Rosenthal has ensured that only half of the B.C. office is made up of former police officers and the other half are civilians with investigative experience from places such as the coroner’s service.

Richard Rosenthal speaks during a news conference in Vancouver in December 2011. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward)

Why is it so significant that you have investigators with diverse backgrounds in terms of ethnicity and experience?

It’s important to have diversity in all kinds of respects. We have to make sure we conduct competent investigations so we have to have investigators with experience to conduct serious investigations.

We need people who will look at these investigations from a fresh perspective and from a perspective of ensuring that the public will have faith and integrity in the investigation and a faith that the office will be independent of the police, not just structurally but also in the way we think and evaluate investigations.

Clearly the past practice of having the police conducting the investigations into these incidents was not resulting in the level of public confidence that’s necessary in order for the police to succeed.

That "level of public confidence" — that doesn’t necessarily mean that those internal police investigations were flawed or missing information; is it just about public perception?

It can be. Obviously there were instances where police investigations had indications of bias and that seemed to be the biggest problem as opposed to them not including all of the aspects that they should. But even there, there have been past criticisms of investigations and their quality. But the reality is that no matter how competent an investigation would be or how fair, as long as it’s conducted by the police, of the police there will be a certain lack of confidence or concern about the bias that the people conducting the investigations and reviewing the incidents may have.

The high profile investigations such as the one that lead to Braidwood — the Dziekanski case — and more recently Monty Robinson. How would the independent agency have handled those differently?

I don’t want to go in to the details of how those cases were specifically handled other than they would have fallen into our jurisdiction.

I can say the one thing we would be able to do under our new statute is we’re in a position to publicly report on those cases in a more robust fashion than has been done in the past. And so part of our mandate, part of our plans are, if a case does not result in a referral to Crown, and it’s a significant case involving deaths or what have you, we will publicly report and explain why. If a case does go to Crown -- obviously we can’t issue a public report there but what we do then is we provide the support to Crown that’s necessary.

What’s been the biggest challenge in setting up the office?

The biggest challenge is the geography of the province of trying to make sure that we are both capable of investigating urban and rural incidents. And be capable of getting out to the various locations in the province in a timely fashion.

A lot of the complaints is why do these investigations take so long? Is there a target in decreasing the time it takes to get results to the public?

Yes, that’s huge. Currently it can take well over a year, even two years before an officer or the public is aware of whether or not a case is going to be referred to Crown for a charging decision. And it doesn’t serve anyone well. The officer has the Sword of Damocles hanging over their head. The family members do not know what’s going to happen and are left in the dark for extended periods of time which will lead to frustration and frankly assumptions that there’s a cover-up going on.

This is not something solely suffered by B.C. This is an issue that’s suffered everywhere including the U.S. with the big agencies. Timeliness has repeatedly been a factor in interfering with public accountability.

It’s safe to say those goals will be sooner than the one to two years that you mentioned?

My hope is frankly that people may be shocked at how quickly in some cases we are able to get it done because they’re used to it taking so long.

Is there a different approach in the US to independent police oversight versus Canada?

In the U.S. there are several large civilian-led bodies ... but they are primarily responsible for the administrative investigations and the disciplinary aspect of it, not the criminal investigations. That’s something that’s different in Canada. So that’s something where Canada is further along than the U.S.

Who’s your favourite crime-fighting hero?

(Laughs) The problem is that when you’re in the business, you just don’t really something you pay a lot of attention to. (Sighs) Can I tell you my favourite book or movie instead? Bonfire of the Vanities, the book, not the movie. And then for movie, To Kill a Mockingbird.

This interview has been condensed and edited.