Beyond the Headlines

Investigating the police

Posted: Mar 22, 2013 6:12 PM ET Last Updated: Mar 22, 2013 6:12 PM ET

Last April the province unveiled its brand new Serious Incident Response Team. The agency was established to conduct independent and transparent investigations of all serious incidents involving police officers.

The idea is to give the public more confidence in investigations that were previously handled by other police departments.

But as its first  year of operations winds down, there are questions about the breadth of its mandate.

Let me give you two scenarios:

In the first, a suspect trying to flee police jumps off a ledge and breaks his leg.

In the second, police officers pull over a vehicle in Dartmouth as part of an ongoing investigation. As officers approach the vehicle they are confronted by a suspect with a firearm. An officer fires his weapon; witnesses say as many as six shots were fired. Another officer used a weapon that fires a beanbag.

Fortunately, no one was injured and several suspects were arrested.

Both those scenarios actually happened; the latter early Friday morning. But the Serious Incident Response Team, was only able to investigate the first incident. That's because under its mandate, someone has to be injured before it can be considered a "serious incident".

Halifax Police immediately reported the shots fired incident to the SIRT team but since no one was hurt, SIRT advised police they will not conduct an investigation. HRP handed it over to the Cape Breton Regional Police.

It seems like a flaw in the legislation.

To many, an officer firing his weapon, possibly several times, is far more serious than a suspect tripping and breaking his leg.

Justice Minister Ross Landry admits he had the same concerns when he learned SIRT would not be investigating this most recent case.

"It raises concerns that we need to examine and discuss and look at how we move forward in ensuring this legislation covers everything," says Landry, "when you put any legislation forward you know there are going to be gaps sometimes."

Landry says he has asked his deputy minister to meet with SIRT to determine if changes need to be made to the legislation governing the agency,

"We're in a democracy and the police should be subject to review at all times especially with the use of force that appears to be above the norm and the use of a firearm and its discharge is above the norm so that examination should always occur," says Landry, "whether SIRT should be doing it, or the process in place in this case, merits discussion."

Ron MacDonald, SIRT's executive director, says he welcomes a review of the unit's mandate.

MacDonald says the agency must operate under the terms of its mandate, and he says a more precise definition in the legislation of what is a "serious incident" would be helpful.

Thankfully, police firing their weapons is still a rather rare occurrence in this province. But when it happens, as it did this week, the public needs to know the incident will be investigated thoroughly, professionally, and independently.

That's why the Serious Incident Response Team was established in the first place.

Note: This article was updated to reflect the second police officer fired a beanbag weapon and not a taser, as originally reported.

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About the Author

Brian DuBreuil is a veteran journalist with CBC News. He has won two Gemini awards for his work, and neither involved dancing or singing on a reality show.

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