Former Skeena-Bulkley Valley MP Nathan Cullen is again calling for more oversight of the RCMP in light of the recent spotlight on police-involved deaths.
Cullen first started his quest for police reform in 2009 with a private member’s bill that would have created a civilian watchdog agency to investigate deaths or serious injuries that happen while in RCMP custody.
The bill was inspired by Ian Bush, who died in police custody in 2005 in Houston. The 22-year-old millworker was shot in the back of his head hours after being taken into the detachment for a minor alcohol offence outside a Houston Luckies hockey game by Const. Paul Koester.
Koester was exonerated by a police investigation and two inquiries by the Commission for Complaints Against the RCMP. A coroner’s inquest ruled the death “homicide,” but coroner’s inquests do not find fault and homicide carries a different meaning in this context versus a criminal investigation.
“I sat through the hearings and the coroner’s inquiry and realized there was a real fundamental challenge if the police were investigating themselves, especially in an incident where someone is killed in their custody,” said Cullen.
“My belief was that in order for the police to do the job that we require them to do, we needed accountability and we needed that oversight. We need to respect the work they do and expect accountability and those two things are connected.”
The bill did not pass and Cullen said it had consequences for him.
“A lot of blowback at the time…. particularly from my Conservative colleagues and the then-people in the B.C. government. There [were] a lot of attacks against me for even suggesting this would be a good idea for the public.”
In 2012, however, B.C. did create an independent investigations office, which is a civilian-led police oversight agency responsible for conducting investigations into incidents of death or serious harm that may have been the result of the actions of a police officer.
“There has been some change on the fundamental things, but not enough,” added Cullen. “Civilian oversight has become a reality in most provinces in this country. It isn’t perfect, needs a bunch of work, but that as a principle has been broadly accepted. The need for more improvements is what people are now debating.”
He said depending on who you ask in the Northwest, there is mistrust of the local RCMP, which is a problem.
“Growing up, for me, I knew it was very important that the public trust police, and I mean all the public, from all different sectors and maybe even particularly those that more often come into the contact with the police. And in Canada that is Indigenous, racialized people, low-income people. That confidence is critical for police to keep us all safe. If you lose the trust of certain groups, policing almost becomes impossible.”
He said some of what is being suggested now is a step in the right direction.
“Yesterday in the House of Commons, the NDP were asking for an investigation into the study of police in Canada and how to make some changes.”
He added there needs to be more meaningful, deeper engagement between the police and people in the northwest region including with the Wet’suwet’en. Cullen also suggested there should be better training for the RCMP noting there is support for this among police officers.
“The police I’ve talked to, talk about this, better training, better understanding [of] what [and] where they are policing and returning back to the police being a deeper part of our community instead of this constant moving in and out.
“You’ll have RCMP members come in for a couple of years and then be gone. I’ve always questioned some of that policy. If community policing is a mandate of the force, then being built in a way that officers don’t stay for more than a couple of years runs against that. It takes a while to get to know a place and I don’t know you can police people if you don’t know who they are.”
He thinks his suggestions are realistic and could be put into practice.
“We were told public oversight wasn’t realistic and the police would never go for it and it would never work. We were told body cameras weren’t realistic, we were told there would also be a camera in the interrogation room. All of these things aren’t realistic or possible until they are. The need is real, it is profound.”
Cullen said if the public loses faith in the police force, then the very job of the RCMP becomes impossible.
“If we are all interested in public safety, which I think we are, then figuring these things out should be important to everyone, regardless of their political orientation or how they feel about police.”
“A lot of folks, particularly white people, are realizing what the reality is for non-white people in this country when it comes to policing. They are not the same realities.”