Police act tears down ‘blue wall’

Civilian boards would have authority over local forces

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The Manitoba government introduced sweeping changes Tuesday that will effectively tear down the "blue wall" that has separated many Manitobans from their police officers.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 15/04/2009 (4863 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The Manitoba government introduced sweeping changes Tuesday that will effectively tear down the "blue wall" that has separated many Manitobans from their police officers.

Civilian-led police boards will be created for each municipal police force in the province and police will no longer investigate their own when serious criminal allegations are made, such as in a police-involved shooting.

These changes and others became imperative after last summer’s damning inquiry into the 2005 death of Crystal Taman — killed when an off-duty Winnipeg police officer crashed into her — and how police bungled the subsequent investigations. But the changes go back further, to the 1991 Aboriginal Justice Inquiry (AJI) report and its recommendation that an independent unit be set up to investigate serious allegations against police.

"This is probably the most modern and up-to-date," act of its kind among provinces, Attorney General Dave Chomiak said of the new Police Services Act. "I think we struck the right balance in Manitoba given our history."

However, Chomiak said there could be some controversy over how officers will be assigned to the investigative unit. They can either be current or former police officers selected by a civilian director. Current police officers would be seconded from their police service.

"To be logical, that’s what it will probably have to be," Chomiak said. "Investigators don’t sort of grow on trees."

Chomiak said such a selection process may create a perception of bias, in that some of the officers in the unit would still be connected to the police service they’re investigating.

"Clearly, when you bring in a rewrite of a police act, you cannot meet everyone’s expectations, but to the extent that we were able to manage the various interests, I think that this act goes some way towards modernizing and producing a made-in-Manitoba model that we had promised after the Taman inquiry and that had been asked for in the AJI."

The act also creates a civilian-led Manitoba Police Commission to oversee policing issues throughout the province. Under the commission, civilian police boards will have the authority to hire and fire police chiefs and set the tone for policing in their respective communities. Besides Winnipeg, there are 10 municipal police forces. Only the Dakota Ojibway Police Service, the one aboriginal police service in the province, currently has a police board.

Police across the province, including RCMP, have been consulted for more than a year on the changes.

"This is something that has occurred across the country and I’m certainly supportive of," Winnipeg Police Service Chief Keith McCaskill said of similar changes in other provinces. "I think the act is long overdue."

McCaskill also said the proposed changes go a long way in boosting public confidence in police, something that sagged in recent years, particularly among aboriginal people.

Tory justice critic Kelvin Goertzen said the province should have gone further by also creating a police college so that every provincial law enforcement officer, including conservation officers, would be trained to the same standards. Currently, Brandon police and Winnipeg police train their own officers and officers working in smaller forces like Winkler. There are also private law enforcement academies.

Chomiak said he’d like to see the bill passed this year and the changes phased in as early as next year.

He also said it will likely cost millions to implement.

The outstanding question is whether the new Manitoba Police Commission and the special investigation unit will have any control over RCMP. The RCMP are a federally-regulated police service under contract with the province to provide police services.

bruce.owen@freepress.mb.ca

 

A new authority

How the independent investigation unit will be set up:

it will be led by a civilian director for a five-year term;

the director cannot be a current or former police officer;

the director will oversee all investigations;

the director can select current or former police officers as investigators;

the unit will handle incidents where a death or a serious injury has been caused by a police officer;

the unit will also handle allegations of criminal wrongdoing against police offices;

investigations also include incidents where an officer was not on duty;

where an incident involving a police officer has occurred the unit must be notified as soon a practical; and

the scene must be held by police until the unit arrives to take over.

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