A Vancouver Police Department patch is seen on an officer's uniform as she makes a phone call after responding to an unknown incident in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, on Saturday, January 9, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

Accessibility to British Columbia's municipal police complaints process can and should be improved, its commissioner says, as the office faces criticism from both legal advocates and the head of Vancouver's police union.

Clayton Pecknold, who was appointed to the role in 2019, said in an interview he's aware of criticism over how his office responds to complaints against local police forces and officers.

“We want to expand our ability to be accessible and our ability to lower the barriers to the police complaints process,” he said. “We absolutely want to improve that.”

Part of the issue, he said, is making it clear that his office only investigates the 14 municipal police departments in B.C., not the RCMP.

His office is also grappling with tackling underlying issues in police forces that can lead to misconduct in situations such as street checks and the mishandling of investigations into sexualized violence and relationship violence.

The commissioner's office is different from the other provincial police watchdog, the Independent Investigations Office, which can recommend charges to the Crown after investigating officer-involved deaths and incidents of serious harm.

The Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner investigates misconduct, can compel officers to testify and reports to the B.C. legislature.

“Given the importance of the dialogue in respect to police accountability, we want to be a little bit more active in the public understanding our role,” he said.

Pecknold said he was shocked to learn that family members of a complainant didn't know what his office does or that it would be investigating the complaint.

“It's something that I take seriously and I want to think about how we close that gap,” he said.

That accountability comes with criticism from those being investigated: police officers.

Ralph Kaisers, the president of both the BC Police Association and the Vancouver Police Union, said his officers have worked to have a less adversarial relationship with the Independent Investigations Office, but the same can't be said of the relationship with Pecknold's office.

“There is little to no trust whatsoever in the Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner by way of police members in this province,” Kaisers said.

Kaisers said investigations are an onerous process for officers to go through, and more oversight is needed of the complaints commissioner.

“It turns into 'This is what was being investigated, but aha you forgot to fill out this form,”' he said. “It's like a big fishing net that gets thrown out once someone complains about something.”

Investigations need to be put into separate categories, such as minor and major infractions, Kaisers said, which would help speed up the process and reduce the stress on the officers involved.

Kaisers said he and his union strongly believe in police oversight and accountability, but they don't like the complaints commissioner's processes.

Pecknold said he agrees with Kaisers' suggestions of separating complaints into major and minor categories, but reinforced that his duty is to the public.

“It's certainly disappointing to hear that's his view,” Pecknold said in reaction to the lack of trust from police in his office. “But, at the end of the day, it's important that the public have confidence in the oversight of police.”

Officers should want to uphold that public trust, he added.

“The reality is that the public have to have trust in their police and have to have trust that their police will be held accountable,” Pecknold said.

Harsha Walia, the executive director of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, said the difficulties in making a complaint should be addressed immediately.

Many people who file complaints are unclear of the role of the commissioner, and better messaging is needed for what he can and can't investigate, she said.

“The number of people who are able to access police accountability mechanisms is very small,” she said. “The most significant challenge continues to be the access to justice.”

Pecknold admits the timeliness of his investigations can be improved, part of which could be supported by the provincial government.

“Legislative reform would be helpful to improve that timeliness, and that's in the hands of government.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 11, 2021.