Opinion: BC conservation officers are ‘shadow cops’ & need police reform

'No legislative loophole should be left open.'

Three weeks ago, a mother bear and her cubs were reported as attempting to gain access to a home in Port Coquitlam. Eventually, the mother bruin was killed. Her cubs were then tranquilized and transported to a wildlife rehabilitation facility. It’s a situation that has once again raised questions about killing wildlife within urban interface communities. 

Then consider 2019, when at least 30 bears were reported killed across the Tri-Cities. Among those killings, two major flashpoints stand out.

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One incident involved a conservation officer dragging an elderly man from his front porch steps in Port Coquitlam. The other incident involved a conservation officer shooting at a bear at dusk — the bear was wounded and never found. That prompted local residents to raise concerns about the officer’s actions and the public safety risks associated with a bear suffering from gunshot wounds in urban areas.

The balance between public safety and appropriate use of lethal force by conservation officers is a topic of public and social concern. In the last eight years, they have killed over 4,300 black bears, prompting various communities to call for reform in how officers interact with both humans and our wildlife. Despite these incidents, and despite the public’s call for change, conservation officers have not been subjected to current police reform discussions.

In British Columbia, BC Conservation Officers are unrestricted Special Provincial Constables. These 'shadow cops' wear policing style uniforms and body armour, carry police-style weapons (sidearm), drive police-style vehicles, and have full policing authorities under the Police Act. However, police oversight boards and police codes of conduct do not apply to them under the Police Act.

Although each individual conservation officer is designated as a constable under the Police Act, the BC Conservation Officer Service (BCCOS) itself is not designated or recognized as a police force. The result is that individual officers are allowed to carry out full provincial policing functions while the agency itself, and the ministry employing them, avoid any official designations as police.

This situation creates confusion and results in a lack of accountability. But it also puts the public at risk. Fully designated and armed police constables are in the field and interacting with the public while not being employed by an actual police agency, nor being subjected to oversight and code of conduct requirements under the Police Act.

Constables who look like police, act like police and hold full policing appointments must be held accountable as police. The people of B.C. deserve to know who our policing services are. The people of B.C. have a fundamental right to know and understand what the powers and authorities of constables are and what their basic rights are during police encounters. Most critically, the people of B.C. are owed a social guarantee that specialized provincial constabulary services will not be abused or misused by provincial ministries after police reform occurs.

Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart has recently called on the province to conduct a systematic review of police reform. In response, Port Coquitlam NDP MLA and Minister of Public Safety and Solicitor General Mike Farnworth confirmed that he will be tabling a motion to strike an All-Party Committee. This committee will be tasked to review the 45-year-old BC Police Act and to make subsequent recommendations on reform. 

In so doing, Mr. Farnworth is targeting municipal police forces and their constables while studiously avoiding mention of provincial law enforcement operations. That needs to change.

Any conversation on this province’s police reform must, by necessity, include the BCCOS and others appointed under the Police Act as Special Provincial Constables. This would ensure standardization of law enforcement oversight and accountability, as well as an equality of practice in both municipal and provincial policing systems.

Amendments are needed to address systemic racism, excessive use of force, accountability and racial profiling across all of our provincial policing agencies.

No legislative loophole should be left open.

Bryce Casavant is a former BC Conservation Officer and Special Provincial Constable. He holds a PhD in social science from Royal Roads University where he traced the rise of the province’s conservation officer service. He recently won a dismissal against the BCCOS in a case before BC Court of Appeal after he was fired from his job in 2015 for refusing to euthanize a pair of bear cubs.

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