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Victoria cop assault prompts change
The Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner, which oversees public complaints against municipal police in B.C., is making changes after a Victoria police officer was cleared of using excessive force by his police chief, but later found guilty of the same charge in criminal court.
Given the different outcomes, the Victoria-based oversight body has decided it will no longer allow internal police disciplinary reviews to come before related criminal trials.
“I’ve never known (these decisions) to conflict before, but to be honest with you, I don’t think we would do this again based on this one case,” said Rollie Woods, deputy police complaint commissioner and a retired Vancouver police inspector.
By holding internal Police Act hearings after a trial, additional information can be considered, such as evidence and witness testimonies, said Woods, adding the victim in this case testified in court but not at the hearing.
“I think it’s important to hear what evidence comes out in court and important to hear what the judge has to say before we go to the discipline proceeding,” he said.
In January 2010, Victoria police jail supervisor Sgt. George Chong put prisoner Frank Blair in a chokehold in the department’s jail block. Blair lost consciousness, and was allowed to fall face-first to the floor.
Chong, a 29-year police veteran and brother of provincial cabinet minister Ida Chong, was found guilty in Victoria criminal court in November of assaulting Blair. Chong was given a suspended sentence and 12 months probation.
Earlier in the year, Victoria police Chief Const. Jamie Graham received permission from the complaint commissioner to hold an internal disciplinary review before the criminal trial could finish.
Graham found his officer innocent of using excessive force, but guilty of improper duty of care, and suspended him without pay for five days.
The conflicting outcomes raised a red flag at the complaint office.
“For it to go to a criminal trial and they find that Sgt. Chong is guilty, and then at a discipline proceeding (Graham) came up with a different finding, it’s important to understand the reasons why,” said Woods.
Victoria’s police chief didn’t say why he wanted to move forward with the hearing before the court case, Woods said, but added that departments typically try to bring their suspended officers back to work as soon as possible, depending on the seriousness of the allegations.
“The emphasis is to be corrective unless it would put the administration of the police discipline into disrepute,” he said.
It now falls to Woods and Police Complaint Commissioner Stan Lowe to review transcripts in both proceedings and decide if it is in the public interest to order a public hearing or have a retired judge review the evidence and make a ruling.
Woods and Lowe were supposed to have made a decision on the case by the end of December, but are giving themselves until the end of January.
Given the public nature of the case, it is important the information be thoroughly reviewed in order to maintain public confidence in the police and the complaint process, Woods said.
“We’re very, very careful because our decision is going to be scrutinized as well, and rightfully so,” he said. “So we just want to get it right so that whatever we do, we can defend it.”