Manitoba

Overworked, understaffed Manitoba police watchdog faced 'difficult times' last year, annual report reveals

Manitoba's police watchdog faces numerous obstacles to doing its job, says a newly released annual report on the civilian-led agency — a report that comes as the effectiveness of the Independent Investigation Unit is being questioned.

Independent Investigation Unit appeared to air concern over uncooperative police agencies

The 2017-18 fiscal year was busy for the Independent Investigation Unit, which dealt with a 48 per cent increase in the number of investigations while dealing with staffing shortages. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

Manitoba's police watchdog faces numerous obstacles to doing its job, says a newly released annual report on the civilian-led agency — a report that comes as the effectiveness of the Independent Investigation Unit is being questioned.

The IIU was overworked and understaffed while grappling with a 48 per cent increase in its number of investigations in the 2017-18 fiscal year, the annual report concluded.

The document also seems to allude to uncooperative police agencies hindering the work of the IIU, which is mandated to investigate serious incidents involving police in the province.

This rift was first exposed last week in private email exchanges showing the Winnipeg Police Service refusing to flag incidents to the IIU and preventing cadets from being interviewed. The friction between the agencies was initially reported by the Winnipeg Free Press.

"The IIU continues to work with police agencies in Manitoba to ensure that information required to advance an investigation is provided to the IIU in a timely fashion," said the 2017-18 annual report, which was made public on Wednesday along with the annual report for 2016-17.

Staffing vacancies, increased workload

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.

"While the legislation outlines the obligations of police agencies and the IIU in an investigation, discussions continue between all parties to ensure issues are resolved or recommendations for legislative change are advanced," the latest annual report reads.

The report acknowledges "difficult times" as the agency endured staffing vacancies due to retirements, a resignation, and a death. The report said it was anticipated the last job vacancy would be filled early this year, but the vacancies compounded challenges during an already busy investigating year.

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

The agency was notified of 74 incidents that may require its participation, which is up from 50 such events the year prior.

Forty of those 74 notifications led to investigations, a 48 per cent increase from the previous year.

The fall of 2017 was exhausting for the IIU, the report said, as it responded to several major incidents, including a fatal motor vehicle collision involving a member of the Winnipeg Police Service.

"The efforts demonstrated by all members of the IIU through these difficult times were greatly appreciated," wrote Zane Tessler, the unit's civilian director.

A total of 36 investigations were completed in 2017-18, resulting in eight charges laid against four officers.

Zane Tessler, director of the Independent Investigation Unit, has raised concerns with the Winnipeg Police Service over a series of issues that are hindering the ability of his office to conduct their investigations, according to private emails. (Pierre Verriere/CBC)

In the most serious case, an off-duty officer was charged with dangerous driving and impaired driving causing death

The IIU charged three officers in 2016-17 and one police member in 2015-16, its shortened first year of operation.

The annual report does not disclose how many officers were cleared of any wrongdoing.

More reports involving RCMP

In 2017-18, the IIU was most often called upon to look into matters involving RCMP officers. In total, the IIU received notifications of 34 incidents involving RCMP in 2017-18 — nearly double the 18 RCMP-related notifications the preceding year. The report does not indicate how many of those notifications became investigations, however.

In a statement Tuesday night, Manitoba's top Mountie, Assistant Commissioner Scott Kolody, explained the jump by saying there were simply more incidents last year that met the criteria to apprise the IIU.

Kolody said the RCMP has a "professional and respectful working relationship" with the IIU and it is his expectation that RCMP officers are co-operating with IIU investigators.

"However, our subject officers do have certain legal rights and respond based on the advice of their chosen legal counsel," he said.

The IIU was notified of 27 events involving Winnipeg police officers in 2017-18, compared to 24 WPS cases in 2016-17.

Private email exchanges between the Independent Investigation Unit's director and the Winnipeg Police Service indicate the police service's leadership was at times reluctant to help IIU investigators, based on differences of opinion over the limits of the watchdog's authority.

The Independent Investigation Unit in Manitoba was formed in 2015. (Bert Savard/CBC)

Of the 74 notifications the IIU received in the last fiscal year, seven concerned officer-involved shootings. Three of those shootings resulted in a death.

"A substantial portion of these incidents occurred within a short time period, thereby increasing the pressure on the short-staffed team as the investigations overlapped, creating an intense period of critical work," the report said. 

Six notifications to IIU concerned injuries during an arrest — triple the number recorded in the previous year — and another six involved what were described as "serious" injuries during an arrest.

The report does not speculate as to why the IIU was called on to investigate more cases. 

2016-17 report was never made public

In addition to tabling the IIU's 2017-18 report on Wednesday, the provincial government also presented the annual report from the preceding year.

Justice Minister Cliff Cullen told reporters Wednesday the 2016-17 report was delivered to the Justice Department, but was never received by his predecessor and thus wasn't made public.

Cullen chalked it up to an "administrative error."

In the earlier report, Tessler celebrates the agency's first full year in operation, complete with permanent office space and a fully staffed operation. The agency responded to all matters within its mandate "without exception and without delay," in 2016-17, he wrote.

On the length of the IIU's investigations, Tessler said the amount of time required for third-party reports, particularly when expert analysis is sought for forensic reports, is a significant burden.

He then notes the importance of revisiting the IIU's founding objectives.

"It is paramount that the investigative team is able to obtain the information it requires in order to advance an investigation to its next stage and ultimately to conclusion," Tessler writes, without referring to any specific circumstance.

"The IIU will continue to work with and educate all involved parties and police agencies about the role of the IIU and the roles and obligations of each person within an investigation."

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About the Author

Ian Froese

Reporter

Ian Froese is a reporter with CBC Manitoba. He has previously worked for newspapers in Brandon and Steinbach. Story idea? Email: ian.froese@cbc.ca.

With files from Caroline Barghout and Jacques Marcoux

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