Province needs its own police watchdog to investigate serious incidents, report says
Review of New Brunswick Police Commission makes 22 recommendations
An independent consultant hired to review the operations of the New Brunswick Police Commission recommends the creation of a civilian agency to investigate deaths, injuries or other serious incidents arising from the actions of police.
A civilian watchdog — something six other provinces already have — was one of 22 recommendations in Alphonse MacNeil's report, which was released Thursday.
The government will bring "stakeholders" together in the next month or two to discuss the report, including the feasibility of setting up a serious incident response team in New Brunswick, Public Safety Minister Carl Urquhart told reporters.
"As you know, I don't do things very snap," he said. "I want to review it, I want to investigate it."
MacNeil also recommended that any future review of the Police Act provide clarity regarding "adequacy of policing services," which is not currently defined, and consider allowing for extensions of time limits for investigations.
Other recommendations include scrapping the commission's list of investigators, establishing required competencies and screening for new investigators based on those, or possibly hiring a full-time investigator as a staff member.
The commission should also have an electronic records management system, he said.
MacNeil was hired after the police commission, an independent civilian oversight body, came under fire last December for the way it handled a professional conduct complaint against a Saint John deputy police chief in connection with Dennis Oland's first murder trial in 2015.
Glen McCloskey, who has retired from the force, and the New Brunswick Police Association questioned the fairness and impartiality of the commission in handling complaints against police officers.
They called for the removal of then-executive director Steve Roberge, calling him "anti-police officer."
Required a 'reset'
By January, Roberge was replaced and the commission's acting chair requested an independent review of the concerns raised by the association to "maintain public confidence" in the oversight body.
The province hired retired RCMP assistant commissioner MacNeil last May.
"There was no doubt that circumstances noted in this review led to the requirement for a reset in the way the NBPC conducted business," MacNeil wrote in his 80-page report.
Must be seen as fair, trusted
"It is critically important that the NBPC be recognized as a fair, independent civilian oversight body that can be trusted by the public and the police to provide services that are dependable and consistent and to act with honesty and professionalism in making balanced and unbiased decisions," he said.
Although a review of New Brunswick's lack of a serious incident response team was not part of the terms of reference for MacNeil's review, he said it's a "critical component of civilian police oversight' and didn't believe the commission could be adequately discussed without considering the role of such an agency and how it would co-exist with the commission.
Right now, the commission handles public complaints into the conduct of police officers and the policies or services of municipal and regional police forces.
But when serious incidents that require an investigation occur, New Brunswick seeks the assistance of the RCMP, or another police force within New Brunswick or in another province. On occasion, a police force, through the minister of public safety, will call on Nova Scotia's Serious Incident Response Team, or SIRT.
Chiefs support SIRT
Six provinces have dedicated full-time teams to handle serious incident investigations: Nova Scotia, Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba, Alberta and British Columbia.
MacNeil said the New Brunswick police chiefs he consulted in doing his report believe the province requires "a SIRT-type unit" to manage serious incidents.
Nova Scotia's team has done its best to respond when called upon by New Brunswick and will continue to do so, when possible, but there are challenges, such as travel distances, said MacNeil.
Scenes must be secured and maintained for agency investigators, he said, and if they're delayed getting to a scene, it can negatively impact the investigation or unreasonably inconvenience the public.
Suggests 2 people enough
In addition, Nova Scotia SIRT investigators have legislated authorities in their home province that don't apply when they work in New Brunswick, and they may not have the necessary bilingual skills.
MacNeil suggested the government consider establishing a two-person team in New Brunswick that could work under the direction of the SIRT director in Nova Scotia.
Urquhart, the minister, said he intends to consult with the police association, the New Brunswick Association of Chiefs of Police, municipalities and the public.
He could not say whether creating a New Brunswick serious incident investigation team would save the province money or cost more. He said many investigations done by other departments are currently done in-kind.
On Wednesday, the Independent Investigation Unit (IIU) of Manitoba, a civilian oversight body, announced it has been asked to investigate after a 27-year-old man was shot by Codiac Regional RCMP in Moncton last week.
The shooting occurred during the early morning hours of Dec. 7, when the man, a suspect in two robberies and a theft, allegedly resisted arrest on Mountain Road.
MacNeil said one of the most important issues identified by his review was the New Brunswick Police Commission's "fractured" relationships with stakeholders in recent years, including the chiefs of police, the police association, the Department of Public Safety and civic authorities, he said.
In particular, the relationship between the commission's former executive director Steve Roberge and stakeholders was described as "adversarial and lacking trust," according to the report.
"His reputation was that of a bully who wanted to 'clean things up' and that led police officers to be concerned about fairness in dealing with complaints made against them," said MacNeil.
Roberge's relationship with board members appointed since 2017 was also "oppositional." They felt he ignored their position on the board and didn't trust them to be part of the decision-making process, MacNeil wrote.
Roberge declined to meet with MacNeil, according to the report.
CBC News could not immediately reach Roberge for comment on Thursday.
'Headed in the right direction'
MacNeil said he's confident the commission's current board and staff are "headed in the right direction and will gain the confidence of the public and police and those who represent them."
They have already developed a strategic plan, a roles and responsibilities document, as well as creating policy and procedural documents to ensure consistency in the delivery of service, he said.
They also created a unit charter that acts as a "roadmap" for how they conduct themselves internally and with outside agencies to "guarantee that respect for one another, the public and the police is at the core of all they do."
The Public Safety minister also expressed confidence in the existing commission Thursday, noting the government has extended the terms of chair Lynn Chaplin and vice-chair Marc Léger until October 2021 and May 2023 respectively.
MacNeil did recommend the commission identify key stakeholders and develop and engagement strategy to rebuild relationships and develop trust. The commission should also determine who will officially represent the interest of police officers in meetings with the commission, he said, noting each force has an association and there is also the provincial association.
No policies, procedures
MacNeil's review revealed that the commission did not have any policies or standard operating procedures in place. It was relying on the Police Act to guide its actions.
This increased the potential for inconsistency in dealing with matters, which could lead stakeholders to question the actions of the commission, he found.
MacNeil recommended the commission develop policy and procedure documents for all aspects of its day to day operations.
Among them should be a policy statement that clearly states who will be responsible for the cost of conduct investigations, in each scenario, to ensure consistency and that all parties understand, he said.
The commission should also complete a reference manual that clearly defines the roles and responsibilities of each member and share that document with stakeholders.
With files from Jacques Poitras