In late June, a disturbing video of an RCMP interaction with a UBCO student came to light. The video showed nursing student Mona Wang handcuffed, on her stomach, and being dragged by her wrists by RCMP officer Cpl. Lacy Browning down a hallway, and at one point appearing to step on Wang’s head. Browning had been responding to a wellness check initiated by Wang’s boyfriend after he became concerned about her well-being when she stopped responding to texts on January 20, 2020.
In a lawsuit filed against Browning, the federal attorney general and provincial public safety minister, Wang states that the incident has caused her “emotional distress, humiliation, shame and embarrassment, psychological and emotional trauma” due to Browning’s “reckless and unlawful actions.”
Wang’s suit comes during a time of increased scrutiny of law enforcement after video emerged from the United States of George Floyd, a Black man, dying in police custody after repeatedly telling officers he could not breathe while white officer Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck, pinning him to the ground. Floyd’s death reignited Black Lives Matter protests around the United States, calling out systemic racism within law enforcement. As a result, countries around the world began protesting not only their own issues of police brutality but against policing institutions as a whole.
In the context of Canada, Wang’s video brings up two specific areas of discussion that will be examined in a two-part feature; the accountability of the RCMP and wellness checks.
Regarding the accountability of the RCMP, the issue is not new in Kelowna. Last year, massive concern arose after Stats Canada released a report showing that the RCMP had dismissed 40% of reported sexual assault cases over the past two years. This came after a video was released in early 2019 of Kelowna RCMP officer Cpl. Kenneth Hall interrogating a then teenage Aden Withers in 2012 when she came forward to report a rape. In the video, Hall asks shockingly inappropriate questions that give the impression of victim-blaming.
Community backlash led to the RCMP Sexual Assault Review Team announcing an internal investigation. Results of the investigation found that 29 cases of reported sexual assaults had been classified incorrectly and 12 cases were being reopened. Kelowna RCMP spokesperson Cpl. Jocelyn Noseworthy said that the findings put Kelowna’s number of unfounded cases in line with the provincial average.
The investigation also prompted a quality assurance review of the department and it was reported that increased training would be provided to officers. A dedicated sexual assault unit for Kelowna’s RCMP was also reported to be in the works to lend investigative support.
The RCMP has provided no updates since February on when or how these changes will be implemented. Mayor Colin Basran recently told The Phoenix that training will cover “areas such as sexual consent law, trauma-informed practices, and bias awareness.”
Kelowna community leaders and activists originally called for an independent investigation to look into the Kelowna RCMP’s handling of sexual assault and rape cases, but the city and government officials disagreed on whether such an investigation was necessary. As a result, one never came to fruition and Kelowna was left to take the RCMP’s word that the findings of their report were impartial, and they would make the changes they deemed appropriate.
With the release of Wang’s video of her RCMP interaction, the question once again arises, does the Kelowna community trust the RCMP to investigate themselves?
“I just filed a lawsuit because I felt like it [the incident] was so big of a thing… a complaint wouldn’t cover everything,” Wang explained when speaking to The Phoenix, “I was still in the hospital when I started reaching out to lawyers.”
Wang explains that after filing her lawsuit, a formal complaint with the RCMP against Browning was made for technical reasons. Making the complaint allowed for Wang to be kept up to date on the investigation, but she says no movement on the case was really made until she started speaking to the media. “They had known about the entire lawsuit, but didn’t do anything until CTV, CBC, and Global News were involved,” Wang says. It was only then that Browning was put on desk duty.
Wang also stated that when she was interviewed by the RCMP at the start of the summer, she was promised that a report of the investigation would be sent to the Abbotsford police for review by late July. After receiving no communication about the state of the investigation throughout the summer, Wang found out through media outlets at the beginning of September that the case against Browning had been sent back to the Kelowna RCMP by the Abbotsford police for further investigation. The Kelowna RCMP still have not contacted Wang or her lawyer regarding the update in the case.
Speaking with Global News, Kash Heed, British Columbia’s former solicitor general, said the way in which this investigation has played out is unusual. “…I haven’t heard of this before,” Heed stated, “When you’re doing a bit of a management review, yes, of course. That’s usually what happens. But a criminal investigation, no, you don’t send it back to the same agency that sent it to you.”
“I’m not too sure what’s going on here, but it is troubling, it’s disturbing, and the public should be made aware of what is going on so we can ensure we have the credibility that investigations would be done at the outset in a satisfactory fashion by our police agencies,” Heed continued.
In regard to the totality of what is being done on Wang’s case, there are three different components. There is an internal investigation and a criminal investigation being done by the RCMP where the results of the internal investigation will most likely impact the outcome of the criminal investigation. There is also Wang’s civil lawsuit which is conducted in terms of being between two private parties. However, Wang says that originally the RCMP had been funding Browning’s lawyer for the lawsuit but that has stopped.
“It’s police investigating police,” Wang expressed when asked if she had any faith that something would come from the internal investigation. “I’m hopeful, but not too hopeful.”
Since her story became public, Wang says that people within the Kelowna community have reached out to her to say they that have had similar experiences to hers with the Kelowna RCMP and their complaints went nowhere. “They just throw them out,” said Wang.
In email conversations with Mayor Colin Basran, he said that the City of Kelowna has little ability to hold the Kelowna RCMP accountable, “The City of Kelowna has a contract with the RCMP through a Policing Agreement with the Province of B.C. Municipalities contracting the RCMP do not “oversee” or govern the police. However, cities set the objectives, priorities, and goals for the contracted RCMP, and establish the budget for policing in the community.”
“Police are supposed to be independent of government, otherwise we get into questions of political coercion of police,” states Basran. He also says that the RCMP is under federal jurisdiction, which means it is overseen by a government body.
It is apparent that municipal, provincial, and federal governments believe it is appropriate for the RCMP to investigate themselves. And when looking into the complex relationship between the RCMP and government bodies, legislation does not make it clear as to what the power dynamic between the two actually is. Unfortunately, The Phoenix was not able to contact any experts or professionals in the field of RCMP-government relations to further clarify and explain.
Options for independent investigations of police in BC presents three oversight groups that handle police misconduct. For municipal police, there is The Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner and The Civilian Review and Complaints Commission (CRCC) for the RCMP. After Wang reviews the findings of her complaint report, if she is unsatisfied with the results, she can ask the CRCC to examine the matter again. There is also the Independent Investigations Office (IIO) of BC which is “responsible for conducting investigations into incidents of death or serious harm that may have been the result of the actions of a police officer.”
In the name of public interest, the IIO is mandated to investigate incidents such as Wang’s regardless of a complaint being filed as the Police Act requires that the IIO be notified when it appears an individual has been injured as a result of police action.
To date, the IIO has not been in contact with Wang. Her lawyer stressed that the IIO tends only to become involved if a death or aggravated assault has occurred. However, pictures of Wang after her interaction with Browning show visible injuries on her face and arms calling into question the force that Browning used, especially after the video of the incident was released.
Section 38.09 (1.b) of the Police Act states that the IIO should investigate incidents where an on or off-duty officer may have violated the Criminal Code. Currently, a criminal investigation is underway by the Kelowna RCMP into Browning’s conduct.
Given the publicity that surrounded Wang’s interaction with Browning once the video became public and the incident seemingly meeting IIO criteria for the initiation of an investigation, it would be reasonable for the IIO to look into the case.
Listing a “commitment to transparency and public accountability” in a 2017 annual report, the IIO states that at the conclusion of an investigation not referred to the Crown, a public report will be issued that summarizes the facts and findings of the case. However, wording changed in the 2019 annual report and the IIO now states a public report will be prepared if it is in the “public interest to do so,” yet provides no guideline as to how said public interest is determined. When looking at the list of closed cases on the website, cases are arbitrarily listed with and without access to public reports. There also appears to be no way to access any record of cases past August of 2019.
The Police Act had originally imposed a “Five-Year Rule” which meant those who were hired to the investigative team of the IIO could not have been a member of a BC police force in the past five years. This rule was suspended in 2019 for two years meaning that a former police officer could be hired regardless of how recently they stopped working with a police force.
The 2019 annual report also lists a commitment of the IIO to “strengthen trust and strategic relationships” with police forces.
A lack of transparency and accountability, and indifference to potential conflicts of interest, displays a perplexing interpretation of what BC considers independent by way of investigating police misconduct. It affirms Wang’s initial impulse to file a civil lawsuit instead of first filing a complaint as there does not seem to be any avenue to investigating the RCMP other than ones that are influenced by police forces. The public appears to not have any ability to truly hold the RCMP accountable unless the RCMP decides to be held accountable.
The question now is, if the Kelowna community does not trust the RCMP to investigate themselves, do we trust our independent institutions?