Quebec's police watchdog under scrutiny once again after court questions its impartiality

A Quebec court judge admonished the Bureau des enquêtes indépendantes for a lack of transparency in its communications with the public. Families and advocates say the ruling confirms what they have been arguing about the investigative body for years.

Judge admonishes investigative body for lack of transparency in communication with the public

Tracy Wing has been fighting to get more information about the circumstances of the 2018 death of her son, Riley Fairholm. She says Quebec's police watchdog, the Bureau des enquêtes indépendantes, has not been transparent. (Sarah Leavitt/CBC)

Since that fateful Wednesday in July 2018, Tracy Wing has been struggling to understand the moments leading up to her son's death.

Riley Fairholm had been shot dead by Quebec provincial police who were responding to a 911 call that said someone was walking around with a gun. He was 17.

In 2019, Quebec prosecutors announced no charges would be laid against police, but many of the details of how the case was handled remain unclear.

Wing says Quebec's police watchdog, the Bureau des enquêtes indépendantes (BEI), has not been transparent in its investigation, and the family is still waiting for basic documents to understand what transpired.

"I still don't have the report from the BEI. It's been almost three years. I don't have an autopsy. I don't have a toxicology [result]. I have nothing," Wing said in an interview.

Neither impartial, nor transparent

A court ruling this week renewed questions about the transparency and impartiality of the BEI, which handles cases involving civilians seriously injured or killed during police operations.

Quebec court Judge Louis Riverin found the investigative body erred in its communications with the public in the case of Koray Celik, who died following a police intervention in 2017.

The Celik family had filed a lawsuit arguing the BEI had caused moral damages over a misleading news release issued 18 months after Koray's death. Quebec Crown prosecutors later decided not to press charges against police.

In his ruling, Riverin said the BEI's public statement in August 2018 was only written from the point of view of police, without mentioning the version of events recounted by family who witnessed the altercation.

The judge wrote: "By publishing only one version, that of the police officers involved, do we not run the risk of publishing half-truths, distorting reality and undermining public confidence?"

The Bureau des enquêtes indépendantes (BEI) was created in June 2016 to investigate cases where civilians are seriously injured or killed in police operations. (Charles Contant/CBC)

The family was awarded $30,000 in damages. A separate lawsuit against the City of Montreal is on hold, pending a coroner's inquest.

Wing also disputed a claim put forward by the BEI in its initial statement about her son's death.

The BEI said police had performed CPR in an effort to save her son. In fact, that wasn't the case. The watchdog issued a correction earlier this year after she complained.

"It makes me believe, or wonder, what else is lacking in their investigation," said Wing, who is also awaiting a coroner's inquest into her son's death.

The importance of a 1st public account

Lynda Khelil, a longtime activist and representative for the human rights group Ligue des droits et libertés, said the judge's decision is a validation of what families and advocates have been saying for years.

"The government needs to take action to transform the BEI so it can become an independent, impartial and transparent organization," Khelil said.

Public opinion is framed by the initial portrayal of an incident, she said, and the initial statement issued by the BEI after a shooting is based only on the accounts of police. Khelil argues the BEI should, at the very least, make that clear.  

Statements announcing the completion of an investigation, she said, should include a more comprehensive account of the evidence and testimony gathered.

Nicholas Gibbs was fatally shot in 2018 by police who were responding to a disturbance. The family is still waiting for information about the investigation and whether charges will be laid. (Anne-Marie Provost/Radio-Canada)

The Ligue highlighted the BEI's communications problems last year in a 60-page report examining the watchdog's performance since its inception in 2016.

The report also criticized the BEI for its close ties to police (most of its investigators are former police, and Quebec's provincial police force assists in the hiring process), not sanctioning officers who don't co-operate with the investigation and the lengthy delays throughout the process.

The death of Nicholas Gibbs, who was killed by police after they were called to a disturbance in 2018, is another case that was plagued by delays, advocates say. The investigation was completed the following year, though the family is still waiting to hear if prosecutors will lay charges.

No charges in connection with police shootings

Since its creation, the BEI has completed 174 policed-involved serious injury or death investigations. None have resulted in charges.

By comparison, there have been 180 criminal investigations into alleged illegal activity by police, and 13 have resulted in charges.

Neither the BEI nor Quebec's Public Security Ministry returned a request for comment.

Virginie Dufresne-Lemire, a Montreal lawyer, has represented several families after a loved one was fatally shot by police. (Radio-Canada)

Virginie Dufresne-Lemire, who has represented several families with cases before the BEI, including the Celiks, is hopeful the judgment will force the government to make changes, starting with the way it communicates with the public.

In Dufresne-Lemire's view, the initial intention of an independent, transparent investigative body was a good one, and the recent court ruling has provided the start of a roadmap for how to get there.

"I think if we could have independence, transparency, impartiality, I think that that would be good. That would be what we hope for and what it should be."

With files from Sarah Leavitt