Chomiak gets it wrong

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Manitoba has finally bowed to the necessity of using an external, civilian-led unit to investigate police shootings and allegations of grave misconduct against officers. Unfortunately, Justice Minister Dave Chomiak, in announcing the new reform Tuesday, ignored a core complaint about the way such investigations have been done -- that police should not be investigating their own. Mr. Chomiak, in concluding that working police officers should be seconded to the external unit to do its work, has made a serious error.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 16/04/2009 (4867 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Manitoba has finally bowed to the necessity of using an external, civilian-led unit to investigate police shootings and allegations of grave misconduct against officers. Unfortunately, Justice Minister Dave Chomiak, in announcing the new reform Tuesday, ignored a core complaint about the way such investigations have been done — that police should not be investigating their own. Mr. Chomiak, in concluding that working police officers should be seconded to the external unit to do its work, has made a serious error.

The decision, finally, to establish an independent body to investigate allegations of police wrongdoing and police shootings is the legacy of two egregious incidents of police misconduct. The first took place more than 20 years ago, when a Winnipeg police officer shot and killed aboriginal leader J.J. Harper, a man who had committed no offence but who was stopped by police looking for an aboriginal suspect. A subsequent inquiry found that the investigation, conducted by Winnipeg police, was bungled. The commission concluded police should not investigate their own members, that handing the job to an external, civilian body would also save the police from the perception they give their own preferential treatment. That advice was ignored.

Last year, the Doer government was pushed to recognize the value of independent investigations after an inquiry into the death of Crystal Taman, whose car was rammed from behind by a truck driven by an off-duty Winnipeg officer who had partied through the night with co-workers. The inquiry was appalled by the job done by the Winnipeg force’s internal investigators, noting they treated officers who drank with Derek Harvey-Zenk with kid gloves, gathering useless information as a result.

Both scandals profoundly shook the faith Winnipeggers had in their police and gave rise to a public cynicism that unfairly paints the whole force. The affairs revealed the weaknesses of police investigating themselves, and underscored the value of the public perception of independence.

Mr. Chomiak said that the external investigations body will be led by a civilian director and use independent legal counsel. But he concluded that seconding working officers from their forces for the ground work of investigation is a necessity because "investigators don’t sort of grow on trees."

That’s true: investigators are trained and, with experience, are capable of finding and reading evidence and separating truth from deception through skilful interview techniques. Police forces are full of such people, but they do not have a monopoly on them.

Mr. Chomiak speaks like a man who has listened to those who argue that entrusting investigations to outsiders would be a mistake. This ignores what experience has shown. Winnipeggers learned from the J.J. Harper and the Taman scandals that police investigating police can and do screw up with huge consequences for police credibility.

Manitoba’s new police act laudably will give the external investigations body broad reach, engaging it in all "major" incidents involving officers on and off duty, and will make mandatory its investigation of police shootings, and incidents of fatal force and serious injury.

Initially, a new unit may need to dip into the existing reservoir of "qualified" talent within the community, and so calling upon working or retired officers is understandable. The new unit, however, should establish its own training protocol so it can recruit from a wide pool of candidates who have the acumen the job requires.

This is how the Ontario’s special investigations unit operates. It recognizes not just the value of being independent, but also the necessity of appearing to be independent.

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