If you are concerned about a police officer’s conduct, you have options, from filing a complaint to suing. Learn how the options differ, and the steps in filing a complaint.
Understand your legal rights
Eleven municipalities in BC are policed by their own police force. Most are in the Lower Mainland (Vancouver, New Westminster, Delta, Port Moody, West Vancouver, and Abbotsford), and Greater Victoria (Victoria, Saanich, Central Saanich, and Oak Bay). Nelson also has their own police force.
This information deals with concerns relating to a member of a municipal police force.
Other communities in BC are policed by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. If you have a complaint about the RCMP, see our information on complaints against the RCMP (no. 220).
You may be concerned with the conduct of a police officer. You may feel they used excessive force in the course of an arrest or investigation. Or you were offended by something an officer said or did to you. Or the police damaged your property.
You have at least four options, depending on the situation:
- filing a police complaint,
- suing the police,
- filing a human rights complaint, and
- pursuing criminal charges.
Each option is designed for a different purpose, and each leads to a different outcome. If possible, you should speak to a lawyer before deciding which option to pursue. In some cases, it might be appropriate to pursue two or more options.
If you have concerns with a police officer’s conduct, you can make a complaint. You can file a complaint with an independent agency that reviews complaints made against local police forces in BC.
Filing a police complaint might result in a recommendation for discipline of the officer involved. It will not result in the payment of money for any injuries or harm you have suffered.
We explain the steps in making a complaint shortly.
If a police officer injured you, damaged your property, or violated your rights, you may be able to sue the officer and the police force in civil court.
Suing the police might lead to a settlement or judgment involving the payment of money.
A lawsuit is filed in either Small Claims Court or the Supreme Court of BC, depending on the amount of money sought. There are rules and processes that must be followed. Lawsuits must normally be filed within two years of the incident. See our information on starting a lawsuit (no. 165).
If you believe you have been discriminated against by a police officer, you can consider filing a human rights complaint.
A human rights complaint might lead to a settlement or judgment involving the payment of money.
A human rights complaint against a member of a municipal police force is filed with the BC Human Rights Tribunal. The complaint must normally be filed within 12 months of the incident.
If you believe a police officer committed a crime, you can pursue having criminal charges brought against the officer.
If charges are laid, the officer would face criminal proceedings.
The process starts with you raising your concerns with the police force involved. They will investigate. Their investigation could result in a report to Crown counsel (the prosecution office in BC) recommending criminal charges against the officer. A senior Crown prosecutor would decide whether to approve the charges.
If the police don’t recommend charges, or the prosecutor decides not to charge the officer, you can go before a justice of the peace to ask that the officer be charged. For more on this process, see our information on charging someone with a criminal offence (no. 215).
If an incident involving a police officer results in death or serious harm, an independent body automatically investigates the incident. The Police Act requires the Independent Investigation Office to investigate to determine whether or not an officer may have committed an offence. An investigation is required whether the police officer was on-duty or off-duty at the time of the incident, and whether the officer works for a municipal police force or the RCMP.
If the investigation concludes that an officer may have committed an offence, the Independent Investigation Office prepares a report to Crown counsel. For more on this process, see the office’s website at iiobc.ca.
The steps in filing a police complaint
If you have a complaint against a member of a municipal police force, you file it with BC’s Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner. The Commissioner is independent of government and the police. This office also accepts complaints relating to the transit police and the Stl’atl’imx Tribal Police. Complaints may be about an individual officer’s conduct or more general policing policies.
You can make a complaint:
- By filling out a complaint form on the Commissioner’s website at opcc.bc.ca.
- By calling the Commissioner’s office toll-free at 1-877-999-8707.
- By fax or mail, using the PDF complaint form on the Commissioner’s website.
You can also get the complaint form from any of the municipal police forces in BC.
You have one year after the incident to file a complaint. You can hire a lawyer to represent you, but you don’t have to.
The Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner reviews the complaint. They first decide if it is admissible. The complaint must describe conduct that is defined as misconduct under the Police Act and occurred in the last 12 months.
If the Commissioner finds the complaint is not admissible, it will close the file and tell you why. That decision is final — you cannot appeal it.
If the complaint is admissible
The Commissioner’s office then decides how to handle the complaint. The options include:
- Informal resolution: For less serious complaints, a facilitator can help resolve the conflict. This process is available only if both you and the police officer agree to it.
- Mediation: In some cases, a trained mediator can meet with you and the police officer to help settle the complaint.
For more serious complaints, the Commissioner’s office oversees a formal investigation by the police department involved (or another police department). If the investigation results in a finding of misconduct, they may recommend disciplinary measures.
If you’re not satisfied with the result of the complaint resolution process or investigation, you can ask the Police Complaint Commissioner to do a further review. The Commissioner can appoint a retired judge to review the matter or arrange for a public hearing before a retired judge.
In deciding on their approach to the review, the Commissioner considers the seriousness of the complaint, the harm suffered, and whether a public hearing is in the public interest.
If a review or public hearing is conducted, the retired judge will deliver a decision on whether there was misconduct, and if so, the disciplinary measures imposed.
This information applies to British Columbia, Canada
Reviewed in August 2017
Time to read: 5 minutes
Reviewed for legal accuracy by
Yulina Wang, Barrister & Solicitor