W5: Who investigates police when they are accused of using excessive force?
Mary Dartis, W5 Staff
Published Saturday, November 12, 2011 6:54PM EST
On March 21, 2010 Tyler Archer was enjoying a night out in downtown Victoria. What Archer never imagined was it would end with him being featured in a video at the centre of a police controversy.
Archer insists he was at the wrong place at the wrong time. He told W5 that he and a friend were walking down the street when a group of men, who had been thrown out of a local nightclub, came up to them and started a fight. Tyler ended up with a bloodied and broken nose. When police arrived to break up the fight, Tyler was relieved. His friend approached one of the officers -- Const. Chris Bowser -- to ask for help but, instead of assisting Archer, the officer ordered him to the ground.
"I remember them telling me to get my hands behind my back and I was trying to but it was kind of awkward. Like I'll be right on my face," Archer recounted. He claims that he tried to comply with the officer's requests but before he was able to Bowser kicked him in the ribs and repeatedly kneed him in the back.
The scene videotaped by a passerby and posted online went viral on YouTube within days. At the time, Victoria Police Chief Jamie Graham held a news conference and admitted that "the images were disturbing."
Graham ordered two police investigations into the incident: one by Vancouver police and the other by Calgary police. Bowser claimed that Archer was resisting him -- although the video appears to show Archer complying with the officer's orders. The Vancouver investigation found that Const. Bowser had not used excessive force. Based on that report, the Criminal Justice Branch of British Columbia decided no charges should be laid. The Calgary investigation, however, concluded that Bowser had used unnecessary force.
Regardless of the Calgary Police findings, Graham feels his officer was exonerated. In an interview he told W5 that Const. Bowser's actions that night might be grounds for a commendation.
"Everything the officer did in terms of gaining control of a set of circumstances, his calmness in what obviously was a stressful situation, while unpleasant to some and being perceived a certain way, might be worthy of a commendation," Graham said.
But the Archer case is not the first example of Victoria police excusing what appears to be excessive violence by its officers.
In 2004, college student Thomas McKay was celebrating the end of exams when he was arrested for public intoxication. He was taken to the Victoria police station. Surveillance cameras captured McKay being thrown to the ground while still handcuffed. His head hit the concrete floor, cracking his skull. As a result McKay suffered permanent brain damage. Yet, an internal investigation by Victoria Police determined the officer did nothing wrong. McKay later sued the City of Victoria and received an out-of-court settlement that is believed to be in the millions of dollars.
In another case, in 2005, 15-year-old Willow Kinloch was arrested for being drunk in public. The teenager was taken to the Victoria Police station. Surveillance cameras show three burly officers subduing her on the floor where she was left, handcuffed, and legs tied together; hog tied in a jail cell for four hours. Once again an internal police investigation found the officers had done nothing wrong. Kinloch later sued the officers involved and the City of Victoria and was awarded $60,000 in damages.
Despite several incidents, each with graphic videotaped evidence that suggests unchecked violence by Victoria police officers, the force seems unable or unwilling to admit wrongdoing by its own officers.
Not so, insists Chief Graham, who claims that he's not soft on policing his fellow cops. "I've been involved in many, many cases where I investigated other police. I don't have a problem doing that and I have found officers at fault, and I've terminated people" he said.
Yet critics suggest that British Columbia has a problem when it comes to police accountability. David Eby, Executive Director of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association said that allowing police to police themselves simply isn't working.
"You would imagine if someone is alleging that police are involved in a sexual assault or a corruption, or a serious injury to someone, that that would be the most thorough investigation, the most complete. And if a police officer is allege to have been rude to someone during a traffic stop then that's something that would be a little more casual. In fact it was the complete opposite," said Eby.
The B.C. government is currently in the process of creating an independent, civilian-led office that will investigate incidents, involving police officers, that result in death or serious harm. But critics are already complaining that the first two hires for this new civilian body were two former RCMP officers.
As for Tyler Archer's mother, Marnie Faust, she still can't believe that the actions of the Victoria police officer kicking her son -- captured so graphically on video -- could ever be justified.
"They still try and say there is nothing wrong with this" she said. "Who can watch that and not think there's something wrong with that?"