Prime Time Crime

(Prime Time Crime exclusive Mar 28, 2011)

A responsibility to speak out

By Bob Cooper




A couple of years ago I found myself agreeing with Vancouver Sun legal columnist Ian Mugrew (Strange days).  At the time I was trying to imagine anything less likely but here it is.  Now Iím on the same side as David Eby of the BC Civil Liberties Association.  God knows whatís next.

The nexus of this improbable alliance is the sudden resignation of Dr. Diane Rothon, after only 8 months as BCís Chief Coroner.  For those readers without a law enforcement background, the Coronerís Office falls under the Ministry of the Solicitor-General and is generally responsible for the investigation of all unexplained deaths in the province. 

In most cases the initial investigation of Sudden Deaths is done by the police as agents of the Coroner (another bit of provincial government downloading on cities).   If that investigation rules out foul play, as most do, then the case is turned over to the Coroner who has the power to conduct Inquests, empanel juries, subpoena witnesses, compel the production of documents and other evidence and determine how the person came to their death.  Simply put, their function is to prevent future deaths by learning from past ones.   Their investigations are particularly relevant in cases like Industrial Deaths, Motor Vehicle Accidents, and In-Custody Deaths, to name just a few.  Itís a system designed to give the public a voice and provide answers for bereaved families.

Iíve had the pleasure of working closely with the men and women of the Coronersí Service over the course of my career particularly during my years in the Homicide Squad.  They were always very professional, compassionate, and dedicated to their task.  Like all public agencies they were constantly fighting for more funding and resources but this became particularly acute after the Liberal government came to power in 2001 and went on a budgetary slashing spree.  Friends told me privately of the frustration of no longer being able to conduct proper investigations.  For example, cases where there had always been autopsies conducted to remove any doubt about cause now went without and the Coroners were left to deal with the families who were demanding answers.

In addition, the Coronersí Service was directed that any information being released to the public was to be vetted through the Public Affairs Bureau presumably to ensure that all such information reflected favourably on the government.  Not surprising given that the Premier, an obsessive control freak, would involve himself in such things as approving the design of highway signs, but very troubling when you consider that a Coronerís Inquest could be called upon to make findings relating to provincial legislation, government agencies such as WorkSafe BC, ICBC, the Motor Vehicle Branch and their private contractors where, for example, snow ploughing,  road maintenance, or failing to ensure vehicles are properly inspected could be a factor.   All things that are controlled by government and where government could bear responsibility in the event of a death.

The Coronersí Service is a quasi-judicial and quasi-law enforcement agency responsible for the protection of British Columbians and as such, it must remain independent in order to function properly.  Dr. Rothon obviously saw the problem with political interference in its operations and complained about it.  When it continued she had the decency to resign but apart from a farewell e-mail to her staff she never spoke publicly about it. While the Public Affairs Bureau spun the story to make it appear that Dr. Rothon was fired, it turned out sheíd been given a severance payment in excess of $128,000, which was no doubt contingent on a gag order.

To give credit where credit is due, most of this would have gone undiscovered were it not for the BC Civil Liberties Association filing an FOI request and unearthing information that raises some very serious questions.

Firstly, this should be on the front page so where was the mainstream media?  As in the BC Rail case, with the exception of the Victoria Times-Colonist which broke this story, theyíve simply acted as obliging stenographers for the Public Affairs Bureau and asked virtually no questions or made any attempt to discover why a senior public official would leave a fairly lucrative position after only 8 months.  There was a time when the press was inherently suspicious of government and politicians in general and never took anything at face value.  Now it appears that advertising dollars and corporate/political links to major media carry the day.

Secondly, where was police management and organizations like the BC Association of Chiefs of Police?   This is a serious affront to the traditional independence of law enforcement and confers upon them a responsibility to speak out, if for no other reason than if government gets away with doing this to the Coronersí Service theyíll turn their sights on other agencies next.   Itís not like they havenít tried before as evidenced by their attempts to suppress VPD Deputy Chief Doug Lepardís report on the Pickton case.

Thirdly, why is the government allowed to use public funds to purchase the silence of those with adverse information?

The Auditor-General is now conducting a review of the Coronersí Service with a report due in July.  It will contain recommendations which the Government will ignore if the past is any indication.  In the meantime Iíd wish Dr. Rothonís replacement lots of luck.

Bob Cooper is a retired Vancouver policeman.  He walked a beat in Chinatown and later worked in the Asian Organized Crime Section and the Homicide Squad.


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