Manitoba

Chief says disputes with police watchdog stem from desire to ensure fairness for front-line staff

Winnipeg police chief Danny Smyth says he believes changes to the law governing the IIU would help clarify the mandate and limits on its investigations into his officers.

Police, Opposition and Taman family throw ball in government’s court for improvements to police watchdog laws

Winnipeg police Chief Danny Smyth says his push-back against certain IIU demands are about ensuring a fair and predictable process for all his staff. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

The head of the Winnipeg Police Service says his resistance to certain requests made by Manitoba's police watchdog is about ensuring fairness for those on the front lines.

"I think what I'm doing is protecting the rights of our officers and making sure that the process is fair for them," Chief Danny Smyth told the CBC in an interview on Wednesday.

Smyth's comment comes after media reports revealed the Independent Investigations Unit of Manitoba had raised concerns on several occasions with his office about delays or failure to report incidents, officers sharing notes and disagreements over the scope of the agency's mandate.

Smyth said one sticking point in particular is the IIU's expectation that certain peace officers, such as cadets, should submit to interviews when they witness a critical incident, even though the watchdog's mandate under the Police Services Act does not appear to apply to them.

"I think it comes down to procedural justice. As much as I'm a strong supporter in IIU's mandate and civilian oversight, I also support procedural justice, and that's a fancy way of saying the process needs to be fair for the people that are subject to investigation, so if somebody has the potential to be in legal jeopardy they shouldn't be obliged to put a report in. You wouldn't be, I wouldn't be … there needs to be fairness in the process," said Smyth.

Gaps in legislation need fixing

Since media reports surfaced on the issue, there has been near-unanimous agreement that the Police Services Act, which gives the IIU its investigative authority, is in need of change.

Smyth said he supports changes that eliminate grey areas that lead to disagreement.

"Frankly I'm not opposed to all these jobs falling under the mandate of the IIU. What I've been asking for, and I've been asking for it for a while … the [Police Services Act] needs to be reviewed," he said.

Nahanni Fontaine, the NDP status of women critic, was involved in the launch of the IIU in 2015 as a public servant before entering political life.

Robert Taman, far left, and Nahanni Fontaine, second from left, were involved in the formation of the IIU. The official launch of the unit happened in 2015. (Bert Savard/CBC)

"It's important to recognize that not every province and territory has a special investigations unit. We have one. So it is our responsibility and particularly the minister of justice to make sure that it is the best that it can be and that it is doing what it is meant to do," said Fontaine.

Unrelated to the media attention on the IIU, the province announced in the throne speech on Monday that the Police Services Act would undergo a review. The Act itself requires that a review occur within approximately five years of it coming into force.

"I'm concerned, every time the Pallister government undertakes a review there's some sort of cut. I'm worried about that," said Fontaine.

Taman family 'disappointed'

In 2005, Crystal Taman was killed when an off-duty police officer slammed into her vehicle after a night of drinking with other officers. That officer didn't serve any jail time because of a botched investigation.

Her husband Robert Taman helped draw up the mandate for the IIU but later resigned because he felt there lacked civilian oversight.

"There's been a lot of time and effort and a lot of sweat and a lot of tears to make something work that is going to be to bring transparency to all of this and it just isn't happening and that's where the disappointment lies," he said.

Taman said before he left a Winnipeg police officer had been hired to work for the police watchdog before he had even retired from the service.

"I thought that it was resembling what was currently in place, meaning police investigating police, and when I went into this whole thing my plan or agenda was to try and make sure there was more civilians doing investigations rather than police investigating police because it's been proven that doesn't work," said Taman.

Justice Minister Cliff Cullen says the Police Services Act is currently under review and if there are calls for changes to the IIU, his government will consider them. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

Justice Minister Cliff Cullen says his government is prepared to make changes to the law if they are needed.

"We've indicated we're going to have a comprehensive review of that particular legislation. We're certainly open to looking at all aspects of that legislation as well. Obviously we want to make sure there is an effective, an efficient review process in place," said Cullen.

Overall good co-operation, Smyth

Smyth says the email exchanges between himself and the IIU's civilian director Zane Tessler might give the wrong impression of a breakdown in the relationship.

"What [the public doesn't] see is all the co-operation that goes on, on the dozens and dozens of other files that have gone on," he said.

He also said critical incidents, such as severe injuries or fatalities, always trigger automatic IIU investigations regardless of the circumstances and so the fact the agency is launching an investigation is not a gauge of misconduct.

"I think maybe people are assuming because IIU is there somebody's done something wrong and that's not the case. They're there to make sure that things were done appropriately," said Smyth.

The IIU did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Internal documents show the WPS and IIU aren't in agreement over aspects of the watchdog's role. 3:10

About the Author

Jacques Marcoux

Data journalist

Jacques Marcoux is a CBC News investigative reporter specializing in data analysis. Previously he worked as a multiplatform reporter for the CBC's French network Radio-Canada, as a public relations officer in the agricultural industry and worked in competitive intelligence gathering in the financial industry. Confidential email: jacques.marcoux@cbc.ca

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