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BEPPLE: Should Kamloops bylaw officers be armed?

Image Credit: Compilation/Jennifer Stahn
February 26, 2016 - 9:25 AM

At this week’s Kamloops city council meeting, staff discussed their review of bylaw services. Corporate services and community safety director David Duckworth brought forward a suggestion that bylaw officers be equipped with batons, pepper spray and handcuffs.

Which makes one ask, who will investigate City of Kamloops bylaw officers when the first death or serious injury occurs?

Batons, pepper spray and handcuffs all have the potential to inflict serious harm or even death. A drunk can drown in their own vomit while handcuffed. A rowdy bar patron can crack open their head hitting the pavement after being struck by batons.

In 2015, a man died in RCMP custody after being pepper sprayed.

It is inevitable that there will be serious injuries or deaths if bylaw officers are armed with batons, pepper spray and handcuffs. If so, it will be the RCMP who would be tasked in investigating the incident.

Back in 2005, in Houston, B.C., a young man called Ian Bush was arrested outside a hockey game for creating a disturbance. Then, while in police custody, he was shot and killed by an RCMP officer. There was outrage over his death. The RCMP officer was investigated by his colleagues and found to be justified in using deadly force. The outrage continued, as Bush’s family and supporters felt the investigation was flawed and biased. For his family, justice was never done.

Whether or not the RCMP officer was justified in shooting Bush, people had little confidence in the police investigating its own member.

The public’s concerns over police investigating themselves contributed greatly to the establishment of the Independent Investigations Office of B.C. (IIOBC) in 2012. The mandate of the office is to conduct investigations into police-related incidents of death or serious harm in order to determine whether or not an officer may have committed an offence.

Deaths and injuries still occur because of police actions since the establishment of the IIOBC. The police can still do their job, but the public has confidence that if an officer is involved in serious harm or death, they will be investigated In a fair and above board way, and if required, charges will be laid.

Which leads us to this week in Kamloops city council, where staff brought forward a report on Kamloops bylaw services. Bylaw officers are peace officers, just like police. They are often put into situations where they risk personal harm, or where they meet with threats and hostility. Three bylaw officers have been assaulted in the last three months.

Being a bylaw officer can be dangerous, and they want some protection in the form of batons, pepper spray and handcuffs. Which, if that occurs, will inevitably lead to people being seriously harmed or killed. At which point, the bylaw officers’ actions will be investigated.

But while RCMP are investigated by the IIOBC, bylaw officers are not. If Kamloops bylaw officers were armed, they would cause harm, and it is inevitable that they would cause serious harm or death.

Kamloops bylaw officers would not be investigated by the IIOBC. Instead, they would be investigated by the RCMP, people they work with on a day-to-day basis.

Just as having the RCMP investigate its own members in Houston when Ian Bush was shot while in custody, having Kamloops detachment RCMP investigate any incidents of serious harm or death involving city bylaw officers could lead to the public’s perception of bias and unfairness.

The RCMP and bylaws work very closely. The chances for bias and conspiracy, real or perceived, if the RCMP investigated bylaw officers, are far too high.

Going forward, batons, pepper spray and handcuffs may be a good idea to help bylaw officers do their job better, and for personal safety. But, hand in hand, if the bylaw officers get these weapons, then an arm’s length process needs to put in place so that Kamloops RCMP isn’t investigating their bylaw colleagues.

If city council approves the batons, pepper spray and handcuffs, then at the same time mayor and council have a responsibility to ensure that when their bylaw officers are involved in serious injuries and deaths, the investigation process is fair, unbiased, and arm’s length. Otherwise, council will be facing its own Ian Bush story, as will a family.

— Nancy Bepple is a recovering politician and local news junkie. She expects she will never recover from her love of the banjo.

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