Ron MacDonald, chief civilian director with the Independent Investigations Office, speaks about the IIO with Minister of Public Safety and Solicitor General Mike Farnworth (left) and B.C. Attorney General David Eby. (Province of B.C. photo)
One week after the sudden death of James Williams, his family remains in the dark as to what caused the tragedy 14 hours after he was released from police custody.
Kevin Touchie still knows very little about the passing of his younger brother, who was found deceased in his room at Warmland House, a shelter and transitional residence in Duncan, on July 16. Williams was released from the local RCMP detachment at 1:30 a.m. that morning, after a 13-hour stint in police custody. The Duncan RCMP reported that the Tla-o-qui-aht member was arrested for public intoxication on Alexander Street the previous afternoon.
For the family of the 52-year-old father of five, “justice for what has happened to him” is critical, said Touchie. Now any further actions hinge on findings from the Independent Investigations Office, which currently has members in Duncan interviewing witnesses and looking for evidence that could illuminate the case of Williams passing. As required by B.C.’s Police Act, the IIO becomes involved when serious harm or death could have occurred due to police actions or inactions. The BC Coroners Service is also investigating to determine cause of death.
In a press release issued today, the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council stressed its commitment to stand with the family as they seek answers.
“We implore the IIO and BC Coroners Service to conduct a thorough investigation, so that the family will be able to obtain the answers they deserve,” stated the NTC.
Functioning as an oversight agency separate from the police, the IIO could make recommendations for Crown counsel to consider charges against the RCMP. In the case of someone who is incarcerated due to intoxication, such a charge might be warranted if an officer fails to “protect life,” according to Ron MacDonald, the IIO’s chief civilian director.
“The police have a duty to do certain things, usually to protect life, and their failure to do that duty might be well an offence,” he said. “If the person needs medical attention, [police] have a duty to make sure that they get it.”
But considering the number of cases the IIO takes on, recommendations for the Crown to consider charges are rare. Over the last fiscal year 193 investigations brought 6 referrals. Since April this year three referrals came from the IIO, including an investigation into an incident in Surry last January that resulted in serious injuries to a driver whose car flipped off a road during police pursuit. The driver had failed to obey a police traffic stop.
MacDonald said that most investigations soon indicate police should not be held accountable for harm.
“Well over half determine relatively early on in many of those investigations that, in fact, the actions didn’t play any role in serious harm or death,” said MacDonald.
Four years ago, the IIO became involved in the case of Jocelyn George even before her heart failed at 7:20 p.m. on June 24, 2016. The young Tla-o-qui-aht mother was taken to hospital in a critical condition that morning after a night in jail at the Port Alberni RCMP detachment. The day before George was arrested at 7 a.m. for public intoxication, released at 4:23 p.m., then taken into custody again after it was reported that she was hallucinating and hadn’t eaten for two days. She ended up dying from heart inflammation due to the toxic effects of methamphetamine and cocaine, according to an IIO report on the case.
The IIO found that an officer failed in the duty to check on George during her time in jail, but this wasn’t enough for consideration of charges.
“Although Officer 1 did not comply with policy requiring him to personally check on prisoners, there is no evidence to suggest that inaction on his part caused or otherwise contributed to [George]’s medical condition and death,” reads the report. “Unfortunately, her death was caused by the impact of drugs on her heart. Even when medical attention was received, it was unable to reverse her condition.”
“The test for criminality is very stringent,” said MacDonald of the criteria for laying charges. “Typically, in our criminal law we only punish people for intentional acts that are criminal in nature. We typically don’t punish people for negligence in our criminal law.”
IIO investigations usually take several months, as they rely on witness accounts and evidence collected, but also coroner and toxicology reports. The office includes 41 investigators, most of whom have not been trained as police officers.
The Independent Investigations Office asks that anyone who saw or spoke to James Williams on July 16, 2020 to contact the IIO Witness Line at 1-855-446-8477 or via the contact form on the its iiobc.ca website.