Emotions were still raw when the civilian investigator from B.C.'s police watchdog showed up at Miranda Thomas's door.
Thomas's cousin, Everett Patrick, had died weeks earlier in the hospital. Prince George RCMP had arrested him in connection with a commercial break-in. Somehow, while he was in lockup at the detachment, he suffered severe head trauma and other injuries.
The 42-year-old tradesman and member of the Lake Babine Nation had lived a hard life — exposure to drugs, alcohol and violence as a child paved the way to an "entrenched criminal lifestyle," according to court records — but he had a kind heart, his family says.
"It's really hard on us. We're constantly breaking down," Thomas says. The pair had been close; she called him her brother.
"I was with Everett when he died."
So even though the suit-wearing Independent Investigations Office (IIO) investigator sitting in Thomas's living room that day in May was attentive and courteous, she didn't hesitate to give him a piece of her mind when he implored her and other relatives who were gathered not to rush to judgment.
"I got mad at him because he was basically saying, 'Don't put any judgment on the cops because we don't know anything,'" she recalls.
"I started yelling at him. 'Standing up for the cops already.' I was, like, shaking."
Since that rocky first meeting, IIO officials say they've made progress in their investigation, which is trying to determine whether there was any police wrongdoing in Patrick's death. They've collected surveillance video and interviewed witnesses.
But Thomas remains unconvinced. Asked what faith she has in the IIO to get to the bottom of what happened, she blurts out: "Zero."
As law-enforcement agencies face growing calls to reform and chants of "defund the police!" persist following the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man in Minnesota, another question is emerging: What to do about Canada's civilian oversight bodies that are supposed to hold police to account?
Police watchdogs have come under scrutiny over delays in starting or completing investigations, concerns they're stacked with police-friendly and mostly white investigators, and over the fact that only a small percentage of cases result in charges.
Skepticism is particularly high within some racialized communities.
A recent University of Toronto study found that while most residents in Canada's largest city would file a formal complaint if they were subjected to police verbal abuse or brutality, Black respondents were "significantly more cynical" about the likely outcome. Sixty-nine per cent of white people said they believed their complaint of police brutality would be treated fairly versus 46 per cent of Black people.
"Certainly a lot of African-Canadians and, I would expect, Indigenous people in Canada, do not have a whole lot of faith or trust in the oversight agencies," says Akwasi Owusu-Bempah, a U of T sociology professor.
"We would like to see more of what these oversight agencies are doing. In line with calls for police transparency should be calls for oversight transparency."
Everett Patrick, of Prince George, B.C., died in hospital after suffering serious injuries while in RCMP custody. The province's police watchdog, the Independent Investigations Office, is now investigating.
Currently, there's a patchwork of civilian-led oversight bodies investigating serious incidents between the police and the public across Canada. Such bodies exist in B.C., Alberta, Manitoba, Ontario, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador. The remaining provinces and territories rely on investigators from one of the existing oversight bodies or from external police forces. The Ottawa Police Service, for instance, is routinely called to investigate RCMP-related incidents in Nunavut.
At their core, these watchdogs have a mandate to investigate police-related incidents that see a member of the public seriously injured or die, even if there isn't a complaint. Some have additional responsibilities, including responding to allegations of sexual offences against officers.
Most of the time, investigations begin when a police agency notifies a watchdog about an incident. In Ontario, members of the public — be they coroners, doctors or lawyers — can advise the Special Investigations Unit (SIU) of a situation they think needs to be investigated. In Alberta, files get assigned to the Alberta Serious Incident Response Team (ASIRT) by the province's director of law enforcement.
Observers say relying on police can lead to cases falling through the cracks.
Look at the violent arrest by RCMP of Allan Adam, chief of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, outside a casino in Fort McMurray, they say. The arrest happened March 10. But it wasn't until June 6 that ASIRT was assigned to investigate — after Adam held a news conference and released images of his injuries.
"If you use the example of Chief Allan Adam, ASIRT was never notified until it became public and he went to the media," says Erick Laming, a Shabot Obaadjiwan First Nation member and PhD candidate in criminology at U of T.
"Where does that leave us with any trust in oversight?"
Dash cam video captures the moments leading up to the RCMP's arrest of Chief Allan Adam.
Recently, investigators with Quebec's Bureau des enquêtes indépendantes (BEI) were called in to review the fatal shootings of two Indigenous people — Chantel Moore and Rodney Levi — in separate incidents in New Brunswick.
Six chiefs from that province's Wolastoqey Nation came forward to question how impartial the investigators could be.
"It is wrong to call these investigations unbiased," they said in a June 16 public statement. "Police investigating other police is inherently biased."
Laming says their concern is a valid one.
A man holds a picture of Chantel Moore during a healing gathering at the B.C. legislature in Victoria on Thursday, June 18, 2020.
Roughly half of investigators in B.C.'s IIO and Quebec's BEI are former officers. About 65 per cent of Ontario's SIU investigators have a police background (though the majority of its 14 full-time investigators do not). In Alberta, one-third of ASIRT's investigators are active officers seconded from local police forces and the remainder are former officers.
"It doesn't matter how many years you're removed from being a police officer. You still have that empathy maybe for the institution," he says.
But directors of oversight bodies say retired officers' familiarity with police procedures and interviewing skills make them well-suited for the job, especially if investigations become complex, involving wiretaps or surveillance.
"It would be extremely difficult for amateurs not to get burned," says Sue Hughson, ASIRT's executive director.
"If you were the family of a person who died during an encounter with police, you would want the best homicide investigators with the most knowledge and experience to handle that case."
Case files are reviewed by multiple sets of eyes to prevent tunnel vision, officials add. And there are restrictions on ex-police officers investigating their former agencies, an SIU spokesperson says.
The statement from the six Wolastoqey chiefs went on to point out the lack of diversity among investigators.
"Where are the Indigenous members of the investigation team?" it asked. "Non-Indigenous people simply do not have the lived experience to conduct an unbiased investigation of such matters."
In Quebec, four out of 45 BEI investigators are people of colour; no investigators are Indigenous. The oversight body does plan to "put the extra effort" into finding Indigenous candidates during the next round of hiring, a spokesperson says. They also have an Indigenous liaison who helps investigators connect with family members and community leaders.
Out of Ontario's 52 SIU investigators, seven are people of colour, three of whom are Black. Two other investigators are Indigenous. In Manitoba's Independent Investigation Unit (IIU), two of their 11 investigators are people of colour, and another investigator is Indigenous. Four out of 25 ASIRT investigators in Alberta are not white, including two who are Indigenous.
B.C.'s IIO declined to provide a breakdown, citing privacy reasons, but a spokesperson says they are re-evaluating that position.
Tom Hewitt is one of two civilian investigators with the Alberta Serious Incident Response Team who are also Indigenous liaisons.
Tom Hewitt is one of two Alberta investigators who carry the unique title of civilian investigator and Indigenous liaison. That means whenever a case involves someone from the Indigenous community, they may be brought in to answer questions or concerns from family members and to explain ASIRT's role.
Hewitt, who is Métis, retired from the Calgary Police Service in 2012. He says he joined ASIRT six years ago, in part, because he felt he could be a community bridge builder. He says one of the biggest lessons he learned from an elder was that when going into an Indigenous community for the first time, don't go in there "believing I know everything."
"I go in there with an attitude of asking what I need to know and what they'd like to share. It's a process where I share personally of myself and I'm asking them personally what they've experienced and what their expectations are and how we can best serve them."
It's a process that takes time, something he says he told his management team when he started.
"In our western culture, we have timelines and deadlines that we need to set. ... The first priority is to take the time to listen."
Sometimes, he'll let family members choose a respected person from the community, such as an elder, to be their liaison with investigators. Those liaisons are then invited to view all aspects of the investigation, including case files, and are welcome to ask questions.
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He recalls once asking a family what their expectations were of ASIRT.
"Good news," they replied.
Hewitt says he understands the desire for people who are mourning to want to see charges laid against police. But, he says, "Good news isn't necessarily whether someone was or will be charged. It's about finding the truth of the incident. The only good news in a tragic incident is when a truthful investigation has been completed.
"I'm a truth-seeker. I'm here to find those answers. And when I've found those answers, I'll be a truth-speaker."
But watchdogs' truth-seeking efforts result in few criminal charges.
Last year, Ontario's SIU closed 363 cases, filing charges in 13 — or 3.6 per cent. That same year, Alberta's ASIRT investigators were assigned 68 investigations and filed charges against three officers. (Five additional officers were charged in cases stemming from previous years).
Over 2018-19, B.C.'s IIO was notified of 177 incidents and determined 127 met the criteria for investigation. Three of those cases were referred to Crown for consideration of charges. Six additional referrals were made to Crown stemming from cases opened in previous years.
Since it formed in June 2016, Quebec's BEI has carried out 170 investigations into police incidents involving death or serious injury. Of those, 117 are complete and none has resulted in charges against police. With respect to its other mandate — investigating criminal allegations against police that are sexual in nature and all criminal allegations against police where the complainant is Indigenous — the BEI opened 69 investigations last year and sent 12 cases to prosecutors, resulting in three charges.
Watchdog directors say the public should not assume the infrequency of charges indicates lax or biased investigations. Also, not all investigations stem from a complaint.
"I would suggest people should feel good about the fact so few result in a referral for charges, because that means, in general, police are doing what they're supposed to do," says Ron MacDonald, the IIO's chief civilian director in B.C.
Hughson, the ASIRT executive director in Alberta, adds, "There is no mathematical formula that predicts how many cases should result in charges. It is not a numbers game."
The directors may have a point, observers say.
"If they're making transparent their findings, and they determine that in the circumstances the officer was justified, then it's a proper investigation," Laming says.
Kate Puddister, a University of Guelph political science professor specializing in criminal justice, notes there is a high threshold to substantiate criminal charges.
The fact that the number of complaints made to oversight bodies remains high could be an indication of public confidence in the system — or it could mean the system is not deterring police misconduct, she adds.
Meanwhile, as public attention returns to questions of systemic racism within law enforcement, some of Canada's oversight bodies are beginning to collect more demographic information about the civilians whose encounters with police lead to investigations.
In B.C., IIO officials say they are now tracking the ethnicity of so-called "affected persons" as well as whether they were mentally unwell. Ontario's SIU expects to begin collecting data regarding the race, ethnicity, religion and Indigenous identity of complainants and subject officers in October.
It's something observers say all oversight bodies should be doing.
"You have this accountability to the public to do proper investigations," Laming says.
"This is how you understand if systemic racism is happening."
Residents gathered outside the Burns Lake RCMP detachment in northern B.C. in early June to call attention to deadly encounters between police and Indigenous and Black people. Among those protesting was Everett Patrick's mother, Sandra.
For Everett Patrick's family, the wait for answers continues. After the death of George Floyd in the U.S., the family took part in a protest outside the Burns Lake RCMP detachment.
Patrick's mother, Sandra, held a bright yellow poster that simply said: "Justice for Everett Patrick."
In the eyes of some relatives, justice can only come in the form of charges.
Darlene Patrick says she communicated with her nephew over FaceTime shortly before he died.
"Even though he couldn't talk, we told him, 'If you can hear us and understand us, blink with your eyes,' and he did. I prayed over him," she says.
"I pray to God justice will be done."
Official information about the case has been limited. The IIO says RCMP responded to an alarm at a sporting goods store in Prince George in the early hours of April 12. "Following several hours of negotiation, Mr. Patrick was apprehended by police, medically cleared at the hospital and taken to the Prince George RCMP detachment cells. Hours later while still in custody, Mr. Patrick went into medical distress and was transported back to the hospital where he was found to be suffering serious injury." He died in hospital on April 20.
According to his family, his first visit to the hospital was for treatment of dog bites stemming from his arrest at the store. When he was taken from the police lockup to the hospital a second time, he had a brain injury.
Court records from 2016 say Patrick was the father of 10 children and had 74 convictions, including for assault on a peace officer, theft, resisting arrest and obstructing justice.
MacDonald, the IIO director, says investigators are still waiting for autopsy results. In the meantime, they have secured video from the scene of the arrest, the jail and the hospital. They are also looking to find someone who can serve as a liaison between investigators and the Indigenous community in northern B.C. — something they've never done before.
Doris Louis, Patrick's great aunt, says she is encouraged by these developments and is working with the IIO to identify elders who can take on the role. Some witnesses are fearful of retribution. Having an elder nearby might make them more willing to talk.
"I'm hopeful," she says.
Thomas admits her relationship with the IIO remains tense. During a conference call with investigators recently, Thomas says, she vented yet again.
"I was pretty pissed off. I was having a bad day. And I told them I want justice for Everett," she says.
"I told them I want these cops charged."
With files from Jeremy Nuttall and Steve McKinley
Douglas Quan is a Vancouver-based reporter for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @dougquan