Internal emails show rift between police watchdog and chief over investigating officers
Police chief blocks IIU requests to interview cadets, says civilian staff not subject to investigations
Manitoba's police watchdog has been raising concerns with the Winnipeg police chief about roadblocks — such as sharing notes, not flagging incidents and keeping cadets from being interviewed — preventing it from investigating officers' actions, according to internal emails.
These revelations come after hundreds of pages of private email exchanges between the province's civilian-led Independent Investigation Unit's director and the Winnipeg Police Service chief were released publicly under the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act.
While the emails are highly redacted and incomplete, they do provide a glimpse into the deep-rooted disagreements over the jurisdiction and mandate of the IIU from the very beginning, when it was established in 2013.
Details of the tension between the two agencies initially came to light after an investigation by the Winnipeg Free Press last week.
Questions about delays
Under the Police Services Act, police agencies are obligated to automatically report certain types of incidents to the IIU, such as fatalities, severe injuries or when it is suspected that an officer may have committed a criminal offence.
Since the IIU became fully operational in 2015, it has investigated 80 cases, seven of which led to charges against police officers in Manitoba.
In March 2016, IIU director Zane Tessler emailed then-police chief Devon Clunis to express his concern over the fact the WPS conducted a criminal investigation internally on one of their own members, rather than handing the case over to his team. The letter came days after police charged Const. Craig Houle for allegedly stealing from other officers and selling their items on Kijiji.
"I am concerned that there may be internal criminal investigations of WPS members that are not brought to the attention of the IIU, as required by law," wrote Tessler.
"This matter needs an immediate and clear resolution."
In another email exchange in the fall of 2016, Tessler wrote to newly appointed police Chief Danny Smyth to express his dismay over learning through local media, including the CBC, that the WPS forwarded a case involving use of force during an arrest to the IIU — except that never happened, Tessler said.
The incident involved a man being handcuffed and punched by a Winnipeg police officer during an arrest in the North End. The incident was widely viewed online as it was captured on video by a bystander.
"The more disconcerting comment attributed to [police spokesperson Const. Rob Carver] was that he confirmed that WPS has reported this incident to the IIU," Tessler wrote.
"If a notification was intended for the IIU, why did it not occur?" he asked.
In both cases, it is unclear based on the email chains how the chiefs responded, if at all, to the emails.
'I have pushed back'
Some of the tension between WPS and the police watchdog appear to be the result of differences of opinion over what necessitates IIU involvement based on the wording of the Police Services Act.
In August 2017, Tessler emailed Smyth after learning an officer was shot in the leg after his gun went off spontaneously and demanded that his team take over the investigation.
Chief Smyth responded the next day saying that this had been a serious workplace accident and was therefore reported to Manitoba Workplace Health and Safety instead.
In an internal memo sent Tuesday to all WPS staff, obtained by CBC News, Smyth explained the incident in question involved the accidental discharge of a police sidearm, which seriously injured an officer.
Smyth also said in the memo he has resisted requests from the IIU when he feels their bounds are being overstepped.
"Indeed I have pushed back where I believe IIU lacks jurisdiction and is not entitled to copies of files involving our members," he wrote.
Definition of 'police officer'
Part of the chief's concerns involve cases where the IIU sought interviews with civilian members of the police service.
In a February 2017 email, Tessler sent a notification that he was seeking an interview with a cadet who was considered a witness to an incident.
However, Smyth refused to release the cadet to the IIU since he was of the opinion that the agency lacked legislative authority to compel him to testify.
"Section 1 of the Act define police officers as 'a person appointed to serve as a police officer in a police service ….' Cadets are not police officers, but have peace officer appointments," Smyth wrote back.
In Tuesday's memo circulated to staff, the chief said he encourages legislative amendments to clarify who should fall under the purview of the IIU's mandate.
"IIU is not entitled to designate non-police officers as either witness or subject officers and I have resisted disclosure in those situations because they have no legislative authority," he wrote.
Officers share notes
Under IIU regulations, the police chief is responsible for ensuring officers involved in a serious incident are separated as soon as possible and remain separated until IIU investigators have completed their work. The purpose is to avoid situations where officers corroborate and agree on a single version of events.
However on at least one occasion, Tessler flagged a case where an officer admitted to discussing an incident with other police on scene.
In another case, the IIU interviewed a cadet who admitted to having read the notes of the officer being investigated — that officer declined to meet with the IIU — and described events that could not have been witnessed since the cadet had already gone home.
"In the present investigation, this issue should be brought to the attention of the cadet and to your training branch," Tessler wrote.
The Winnipeg Police Service declined the opportunity for an interview to discuss the matter. However, in a written statement, the chief said he maintains a positive relationship with the IIU.
"Civilian director Zane Tessler and I communicate and meet with one another routinely. As with any new protocol, there were what I would characterize as 'growing pains' at the beginning of its mandate," Smyth wrote.
"At times, we have disagreed on the interpretation of regulations as they pertain to officer involved conduct. We have worked through those matters when they arose. The Winnipeg Police Service is committed to ensuring the success of civilian oversight as it pertains to police governance, and more specifically independent investigation of officer involved incidents that fall within the jurisdiction of the IIU as prescribed under the Police Services Act," he said.
Improvement to process, laws
Mayor Brian Bowman said any opportunity to clarify lines of responsibility would help improve the relationship between the IIU and the WPS.
"The chief of police and the men and women of the Winnipeg Police Service have my support, in the context of the checks and balances that are, I think, necessary in the administration of justice, and specifically the IIU's efforts. If there are improvements to that process that can involve greater openness and transparency, that's something I think everyone would benefit from," Bowman said.
Justice Minister Cliff Cullen, who ultimately oversees the IIU, said his government is in the early stages of reviewing the Police Services Act.
"That's the intent of reviewing any legislation, to see if there's an avenue to strengthen legislation or see where there's areas that it's weak or flawed, and certainly we'll engage Manitobans," he said.
The IIU was not immediately available to respond to questions provided by the CBC.
With files from Kristin Annable, Ian Froese