New police oversight model needed, experts say after Winnipeg officer cleared in killing of Indigenous teen
5 of 8 Independent Investigation Unit of Manitoba investigators come from law enforcement: civilian director
Legal experts and Indigenous leaders are questioning the ability of Manitoba's police watchdog to hold law enforcement to account, in the wake of a report on the shooting death of 16-year-old Eishia Hudson.
The Independent Investigation Unit of Manitoba's report on the April 8, 2020, shooting of the teen, following a liquor store robbery and high-speed chase, said no charges will be laid against the officer who fatally shot her.
After the report was released on Thursday, the Indigenous girl's father, William Hudson, said he knew what the decision would be before he heard it.
"The IIU works with the police every day. They can't be trusted to give a fair opinion," he said during a news conference.
The outcome of the unit's investigation also did not surprise Bronwyn Dobchuk-Land, a criminal justice assistant professor at the University of Winnipeg.
"Structurally speaking, I don't think the IIU is really capable of finding officers guilty," she said.
Most of the investigators working for the investigative unit either worked in law enforcement themselves, or come from backgrounds that work closely with police, said Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs Grand Chief Arlen Dumas.
"We need perhaps more of a more civilian oversight to give people more of an objective review on things," he said in an interview with Marcy Markusa, host of CBC Manitoba's Information Radio.
The connections between the police watchdog agency and law enforcement extend to the independent experts brought in to give their opinions for investigations, said lawyer Corey Shefman.
"There's no independence here. These are all people who are all associated with law enforcement, who have a built-in bias towards law enforcement being reasonable, doing the right thing," he said.
The Independent Investigation Unit's civilian director, Zane Tessler — who previously served as Crown prosecutor, and was a criminal defence lawyer before that — told CBC News five of the IIU's eight investigators come from law enforcement. The unit currently has one investigator who identifies as Indigenous, but Tessler says he would welcome more people from diverse backgrounds.
"Whenever we have available positions to be filled, they are open competitions," he said. "I would encourage anyone who has the appropriate skill set in this field to apply.
"I think our team is excellent, and if there is a position available, I would relish the opportunity of having anyone of whatever background they can bring with them, provided they had the appropriate skill set to do the work."
The U of W's Dobchuk-Land says there's a reason most of the IIU's investigators come from law enforcement backgrounds.
"That's who has investigator training in our society. The criminal justice system kind of has a monopoly on that kind of investigative skill set," she said.
Prevention, not punishment, key
The problems facing police oversight agencies go beyond an internal culture that sympathizes with police, Dobchuk-Land said. They rest with the fundamental powers given to police to use force, and the discretion they are allowed when exercising that force, she said.
"If [oversight] organizations … started to hold police accountable for their discretionary uses of force, the institution of policing would kind of crumble underneath the weight of that, because it would make the job of police officers very difficult, or near impossible."
The way to reduce deaths at the hands of police isn't trying to punish officers after the fact, through institutions like the IIU, she said.
"It's to actually reduce the number of situations where we're putting police at the front lines of crises."
That means finding ways of responding to emergencies that don't involve sending in armed police officers who are trained and authorized to use lethal force.
An inquest into Hudson's death is expected to be called under the Fatality Inquiries Act, but the teen's family has asked for a public inquiry, which would be broader in scope and could examine issues like systemic racism in policing.
Shefman says a more open and transparent process, like an inquiry, could improve public confidence in the police, but ultimately a new model of police accountability is needed.
"Frankly, I don't think it's a process that exists yet in Canada. The way that things have been done before aren't good enough. We need to innovate and we need to do so in an extreme way, because this is an extreme problem."
With files from Peggy Lam