Manitoba

Manitoba looks to strengthen police watchdog by requiring most officers to comply — or penalizing them

Manitoba is planning to beef up its police watchdog, whose shortcomings — ranging from its overseeing of law enforcement personnel to the diversity of members — have come into question.

Justice Minister expands scope of Independent Investigation Unit's responsibilities

The police watchdog will have more authority to investigate the actions of officers, under new legislation introduced on Monday. (Kevin Nepitabo/CBC)

Manitoba is planning to beef up its police watchdog, whose shortcomings — ranging from its overseeing of law enforcement personnel to the diversity of members — have come into question.

The provincial government introduced legislation on Monday that will give the Independent Investigation Unit more bite.

The civilian-led body that oversees police would be able to introduce fines and jail time for most police officers who do not comply with any of its "reasonable" requests.

The bill would also forbid the unit from hiring active police offers as investigators.

As well, the IIU would be required to prepare a public report into each investigation. It must also provide an explanation whenever police officer is cleared of wrongdoing.

"The reason we're bringing legislative changes is that we're seeing that there's an opportunity and a time right now to evolve," Justice Minister Cameron Friesen said in an interview.

Shortcomings of police watchdog

The watchdog's limitations have been laid bare in recent years.

In 2019, it took the Winnipeg Police Service to court after the force refused to hand over the notes of two cadets who witnessed a fatal Taser encounter. The police argued the cadets were outside the IIU's authority to probe.

And the watchdog couldn't do anything when a community safety officer in Thompson knocked a woman unconscious at a RCMP detachment in 2018 because the individual's position was outside its jurisdiction. 

Genesta Garson, then 19 years old, was knocked unconscious by a community safety officer at a detachment in Thompson, Man. (Security video)

The new legislation still does not permit IIU to investigate cadets or community safety officers, but it requires them, along with other police officers, to comply with the reasonable requests of investigators. 

Officers who are suspected of wrongdoing don't have to co-operate. Friesen said the exemption is needed to comply with police contracts and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

"We cannot simply override the protections that police officers have in their collective agreements. We can't override what the charter says about your right not to incriminate yourself," he said.

The bill stems from an independent review of the law governing police last fall and was originally scheduled to be debated last spring. But Friesen pulled the bill, citing a need for more consultation following a probe into the fatal police shooting of Eishia Hudson, an Indigenous teen in Winnipeg. The report sparked more calls for reforms.

The government consulted with Indigenous and other community groups in response, said Grand Chief Arlen Dumas with the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs.

"Sometimes there's a perceived laziness or a reliance on a bureaucracy that is incentivized to maintain the status quo," he said. "I want to acknowledge that effort [from the minister]. I thought that was truly significant."

Such discussions led to the proposed creation of a director of Indigenous and community relations to build bridges with First Nations, Métis, Inuit and other communities, as well as the option for IIU to enlist a community liaison in some investigations, Friesen said.

Justice Minister Cameron Friesen said the creation of a new director and the involvement of community liaisons will permit the police watchdog to more accurately reflect the diversity of Manitoba. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

"It is high time for the IIU to just reflect better the communities that it is actually working with," the minister said.

The watchdog doesn't go as far as requiring Indigenous or BIPOC representation among its investigators.

It also continues to include former police officers to look into potential police wrongdoing, which prompts some critics, including former chief judge Murray Sinclair, to question the investigators' objectivity. 

"When it comes to actually doing investigations, this is very technical work and we need a skill set, and many times it is former police who are best suited to actually take on that role," Friesen said.

"On the other hand, it's essential for us to demonstrate to the public that the work is independent, it's accountable, it's transparent and it won't simply be people protecting people."

Winnipeg criminal defence attorney Zilla Jones would like to see the system restructured, both the IIU and legislation surrounding it.

"I would like to see much greater civilian involvement in deciding whether there's been wrongdoing by a police officer. I would like to see a lot more activity by the Crown in charging police officers.

"I'd like to see them coming through the justice system more for these types of things," Jones said.

Winnipeg criminal defence attorney Zilla Jones would like to see deep structural change to the way the IIU handles investigations. (Bridget Forbes/CBC)

She also thinks the proposed changes sound good but lack specifics and details.

"Deeper structural change. Not just cosmetic change, not just pandering to make it look as if you heard the protests in the last year or so, but actually structurally changing this so that there is more accountability for officers involved in these all these issues that hopefully they think twice before they become involved in incidents."

The Opposition New Democrats said there should be a way to ensure more police co-operate.

"At the end of the day, we also have to ensure that investigations are thorough and robust," NDP justice critic Nahanni Fontaine said.

"And some would submit that ... an officer who's involved in the particular complaint or investigation should be interviewed."

New legislation gives Independent Investigation Unit more bite

1 year ago
Duration 1:59
Manitoba is planning to beef up its police watchdog, whose shortcomings — ranging from its overseeing of law enforcement personnel to the diversity of members — have come into question. The provincial government introduced legislation on Monday that will give the Independent Investigation Unit more bite.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ian Froese

Provincial Affairs Reporter

Ian Froese covers provincial politics and its impact for CBC Manitoba. He previously reported on a bit of everything for newspapers. You can reach him at ian.froese@cbc.ca.

With files from The Canadian Press

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