Manitoba can create better police review

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The Commission for Public Complaints Against the RCMP was recently asked to determine if the the federal police force could investigate complaints against its own members. The answer, in a report released this week, was a resounding no.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 14/08/2009 (4748 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The Commission for Public Complaints Against the RCMP was recently asked to determine if the the federal police force could investigate complaints against its own members. The answer, in a report released this week, was a resounding no.

Some members of the public may have secretly hoped that the vaunted Mounties were able to avoid the same chronic failing that afflicts municipal police agencies. The CPC report shows the Mounties are just as fallible as their municipal cousins.

The CPC looked at 28 cases where RCMP members were investigated for assault, sexual assault and use of force that resulted in death. It found two thirds of the cases were handed either partially or "entirely inappropriately."

A single officer was often assigned to investigate the cases, and in many cases they were junior to the officers being investigated. In one-quarter of the cases, the investigating officer also admitted to personally knowing the officer being investigated.

Remarkably, the CPC found the officers tasked with the investigations acted "professionally and without bias." And yet, thanks to the command structure and inadequate response, the Mounties failed to produce an objective investigation of these complaints.

What does the CPC report tell us? First and foremost, that it is simply too much to ask police officers to investigate other police officers. However, in this regard, the CPC report is hardly unique; inquiry after inquiry has come to the exact same conclusion.

We know there is a problem, but to date Canada has been unable to find a practical model that serves the interests of both the public and police officers. A system of review that serves the public’s need for transparency and accountability, but that won’t force police officers to retreat further into their dark blue foxholes. It would not be a stretch to say that, to date, we haven’t found the perfect system.

Ontario has long stood on its own as the only province with a separate body to investigate complaints against police. The Special Investigations Unit (SIU) is an independent agency that has its own investigatory resources.

The SIU was long thought to be the model on which other provinces could base similar agencies. However, even the vaunted SIU has not been without its problems.

Last fall, a scathing report by Ontario Ombudsman Andre Marin, a former civilian head of the SIU, concluded the agency was complacent, that its investigators identified too closely with the police they were investigating and that it viewed complaints "through blue-coloured glasses." Marin made 46 recommendations to fix the SIU.

A follow-up report in June found that all but the most rudimentary recommendations had been ignored. In particular, Marin was concerned that SIU investigators, many of whom were cops or former cops, were not conducting prompt interviews with officers at the centre of complaints. Marin has announced yet another review of the SIU.

If not an SIU model, then what? In the wake of the Taman inquiry, Manitoba has introduced legislation to create Canada’s second independent agency to investigate complaints against police. The legislation is at second-reading stage and could pass the legislature as early as this winter.

Manitoba Justice Minister Dave Chomiak has promised the agency will be headed by a civilian, but that investigators for the most part will be current and former cops. This obvious concession may be politically expedient, but as the CPC report shows, it won’t serve the public or individual police officers very well.

In an equally scathing analysis of the Manitoba model published in the Free Press in June, Marin essentially says Chomiak is naive for believing that any police officer, current or former, can do this job. He argues that it is essential that specially trained civilians investigate these complaints, not current or former police officers.

This is the single most important issue facing any jurisdiction attempting to provide a better model for reviewing complaints against police. There are no doubt some police officers who have the intestinal fortitude to resist the siren call of the police fraternity encouraging them to take a less-than-objective view of transgressions. But there aren’t enough of them to do the job properly.

The CPC report brings very little that is new to this issue. But it underlines the importance of turning this most important job over to objective, effective investigators who come from outside the law enforcement community.

Manitoba has a chance to do what no other province has done, and create a truly independent, objective system for reviewing complaints against police. The province must not pass up this opportunity.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Dan Lett

Dan Lett
Columnist

Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.

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