SFU PhD grad poised to advise US jurisdictions on civilian police oversight
by Stacey Makortoff
2021 is a year of firsts for BC’s former chief civilian director of the Independent Investigations Office Richard Rosenthal ̶ he’s earned his PhD in criminology, became certified as a fire truck operator, gotten engaged, and begun his new consulting career to help establish civilian oversight offices in the U.S.
Undertaking firsts isn’t unusual for Rosenthal. He started his career at the youngest prosecutor in Los Angeles at the age of 23, earning his JD (Juris Doctor degree) to practice law from the University of California Berkeley in 1986. He was the first director of Portland’s Independent Police Review Division, served as the first police monitor for the City and County of Denver and was selected to become the first chief civilian director of the Independent Investigations Office (IIO) of British Columbia.
After his wife became ill and died in 2015, Rosenthal took some time to reflect on what he wanted in his life. Knowing that his own father got his PhD at the age of 50, Rosenthal realized that it wasn’t too late for him to pursue a PhD of his own.
Leaving his position with the IIO a few months early to pursue a PhD in SFU’s criminology program, Rosenthal knew that the transition back to being a student might be a bit tricky. Given his early career trajectory, he hadn’t been a student in 30 years, and here he was starting in master’s classes to gain credits for the PhD program. While he recognized he had a lot to learn, he also had as much as or even possibly more experience than some of his instructors being a teacher, lecturer and adjunct professor in some of his previous roles.
“I remember the first day I walked into class,” says Rosenthal, “I was coming straight from work and was dressed in a suit and tie. All my classmates were in their 20s and they were clearly wondering why a guest lecturer was present at the first class.”
Rosenthal continues, “I was also worried because I was already well-known in this field and made some decisions that ended up producing some negative publicity. We were attempting to change an embedded police culture within the IIO and a lot of people were let go as a result. I feared that students wouldn’t accept me because they might be concerned about my reputation from the media.”
In spite of all of his concerns, Rosenthal was treated well by both students and professors, alike. He was able to bridge the age gap with the students in his program and not only learn from his professors, but also be treated like a peer in some ways as well. His supervisor, David McAllister, was the right fit for his research.
Rosenthal is grateful for the assistance of his fellow MA students (who helped him through some of the quantitative aspects of the program) as well as his professors and, of course, his family. His two young adult sons and fiancé were integral in helping him complete his thesis. His sons managed the house and farm and one helped visualize his data. His new fiancé drove him to back-to-back meetings in Seattle to gather the data for his thesis prior to the closure of the border.
He’s busier now than when he was working full-time with the IIO. He’s up early in the morning to tend to his chickens, spends afternoons and weekends tending to his beehives and his lavender field and as the oldest recruit (age 55) with the Mission Fire Department, answers fire calls at all times of the day and night. His lavender is sold to local florists but his “liquid gold” honey is saved for family and friends.
His doctoral degree not only adds credibility for his consultancy, it also helps create a niche for the services he offers. He is now the only person holding a PhD in North America to have experience creating multiple civilian oversight agencies.
With the recent attention to the deaths of minorities at the hands of police in the last few years, Rosenthal’s research on civilian oversight models, experience building and running the IIO in BC, understanding of US criminal law, policing and criminal proceedings, he’s poised to advice U.S. jurisdictions on undertaking these important initiatives.
“At the heart of what I do is risk management for the people and communities served by police. Civilian oversight models, when set up and operated correctly has the potential to save lives.”
That is why Rosenthal has now begun consulting with the State of Washington on how to create and manage the first Independent Critical Incident Investigation Agency in the U.S., with the intent to create more trust of the police within the community, reduce the risk of police using lethal force and, ultimately, save lives.