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More bite sought for police watchdog

Liberal leader calls for tougher legislation, sanctions and punishment after Free Press series reveals shortcomings of Independent Investigation Unit

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 20/11/2018 (629 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Manitoba Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont is calling for an overhaul of the Police Services Act to sharpen the Independent Investigation Unit's teeth, granting it the power to compel whatever evidence and testimony it needs to fulfil its mandate to hold provincial law enforcement to account.

"It’s actually surprising that they don’t have that power already," Lamont said Tuesday. "The provincial ombudsman, the children’s advocate and the auditor general all have that power."

Those comments came Tuesday in response to a four-part Free Press series on the effectiveness of the province’s civilian-led police watchdog and its relationship with the Winnipeg Police Service.

Liberal leader Dougald Lamont

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Liberal leader Dougald Lamont

The Free Press launched its investigation to find out why only a handful of cases in the IIU’s 3 1/2-year history have led to criminal charges.

A series of freedom of information requests produced hundreds of pages of IIU documents and correspondence that served as the backbone for the project. The documents revealed numerous roadblocks thrown up by police, both individually and institutionally, that have undermined the agency’s effectiveness.

This is the final instalment in the series.

Lamont, who serves as the MLA for St. Boniface, is also calling for the implementation of sanctions and penalties for refusing to co-operate with IIU investigators. Under the current legislation, police officers identified as subjects of IIU probes don’t have to meet with, or even respond to, investigators.

Last weekend, the Free Press revealed that 74 per cent of police officers identified in IIU probes refuse to fully co-operate with investigators.

While Lamont believes officers should have the right against self-incrimination, he doesn’t believe they should be able to disregard IIU investigators entirely as they are currently allowed to do.

The Liberal leader also wrote a letter to the Office of the Ombudsman calling for an investigation into the current government’s handling of IIU annual reports. During the reporting for this series, the Free Press discovered Manitoba Justice — for unknown reasons — has sat on the agency's last two annual reports.

"That’s not acceptable. I’m not sure what the problem has been, but it looks like they’ve been asleep at the wheel on this," he said.

A review of the Police Services Act — the legislation governing Manitoba law enforcement and the IIU — is coming but what changes, if any, will be made to give the agency more power remains unclear. During Tuesday’s speech from the throne, the provincial government announced its intention to review the legislation.

However, Premier Brian Pallister declined comment when asked about the revelations in the Free Press series and whether the upcoming review would look into the IIU specifically. Justice Minister Cliff Cullen was also mum about whether the review will include the agency, saying only that its scope would be decided based on upcoming public consultations.

NDP Justice Critic Nahanni Fontaine, who was an early proponent of a civilian-led police oversight agency in Manitoba, said she feels strongly now is a time for, "at the very minimum," a review of the legislation.

NDP MLA Nahanni Fontaine

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

NDP MLA Nahanni Fontaine

She became active and vocal on the issue prior to her time in provincial politics while working for the Southern Chiefs Organization following the the 2005 shooting death of 18-year-old Matthew Dumas by members of the WPS. 

She said if changes need to be made they should be made soon, so a decade from now Manitobans don’t have the same questions and concerns about the state of police accountability.

"The bottom line is, right now we have an opportunity here to do a review. If we need to strengthen the legislation then let’s strengthen it. If we need to look at the structure of the IIU then let’s look at it," Fontaine said.

Robert Taman, who was an original member of the Manitoba Police Commission, which helped guide the creation of the IIU, said he has no doubt the police watchdog needs to be given more power. He just hopes there’s the political willpower to make sure that happens.

His wife, Crystal Taman, was killed by an off-duty WPS officer driving drunk in 2005, the event that sparked the creation of the IIU. The subsequent investigation into her death was botched by the now-disbanded East St. Paul Police Department. The officer responsible, Derek Harvey-Zenk, was given a sentence of two years house arrest, which many critics said was a slap on the wrist.

Robert Taman

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Robert Taman

Early on in the process of forging the IIU, Taman said it became clear the WPS wasn’t happy with the new agency and would do what it could limit the its oversight.

"(The WPS) was very vocal. They didn’t want this at all," he said. "They liked everything status quo. They weren’t happy with the changes.

"I think I had a different agenda. Everybody had their own agenda. I had high hopes from the beginning, but as it played out, as it evolved, I kind of understood the direction they were going to go with it."

Eventually, Taman became convinced the IIU was little more than "an extra police force," so he resigned his seat from the police commission.

"The end result, after all was said and done, I didn’t feel like I could be proud of that," he said.

A number of other provincial and municipal politicians expressed support Tuesday for a review of the legislation.

Mayor Brian Bowman, alongside new Winnipeg Police Board chairman Kevin Klein, said effective police oversight is of paramount importance.

Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman

JOHN WOODS / THE CANADIAN PRESS

Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman

"If there are any provincial legislative changes that could be forthcoming that could improve clarity regarding the authority and powers of the IIU, I think that should be welcomed," Bowman said.

Klein added that despite the revelations laid out in the recent Free Press series, the Winnipeg Police Board — the civilian body that directs the WPS — has "full confidence" in Chief Danny Smyth and the members of the force.

In addition to a legislative review, Taman said there needs to be an independent audit of the IIU so any issues with the agency can be identified and addressed. He also called for a return to the recommendations of the provincially struck Taman Inquiry, which he feels have been increasingly disregarded by those with control over the shape and operations of the agency.

"I’m not saying I resigned (from the police commission) because I didn’t get my way. I resigned because of the blatant disregard for the reason that the commission and the IIU were created," he said, adding he believes there should be more civilians involved in investigations of police conduct.

"It went against everything they recommended. It went against what I believe. There’s a lot of time and a lot of money and a lot invested here that somebody should revisit.

"Let’s look at this from an independent source and say, ‘Is this working?’"


ryan.thorpe@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @rk_thorpe

Ryan Thorpe

Ryan Thorpe
Reporter

Ryan Thorpe likes the pace of daily news, the feeling of a broadsheet in his hands and the stress of never-ending deadlines hanging over his head.

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