Nfld. & Labrador·Analysis

Embattled RNC facing a fight to regain public trust

When residents of downtown St. John's awoke last Saturday morning, they were greeted with obscene graffiti that targeted the city's police.

Public inquiry, court cases, SIRT investigation all happening at once, as RNC reputation on the line

Const. Joe Smyth, Const. Sean Kelly and Const. Carl Douglas Snelgrove have all faced trouble in the last year. (CBC)

When residents of downtown St. John's woke up last Saturday morning, they were greeted with the words "f--k the police" spray-painted along a prominent spot on Duckworth Street.

The graffiti appeared just a short walk from the Supreme Court of Newfoundland, where Doug Snelgrove, a 10-year veteran of the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary, was found not guilty only hours earlier of sexual assaulting a young woman while he was on duty.

The decision ignited a firestorm of debate and protest over power, consent and ethics. 

But the Snelgrove case is only one of several incidents to throw the reputation of the provincial force into flux, and left other officers defending themselves and their profession amid doubts how the force conducts itself.

Not a reflection of the entire force

Upwards of five senior members of the RNC are under criminal investigation for the handling of a confidential informant, while a public inquiry into a deadly police shooting has thrown a constable into the spotlight.

In Corner Brook, RNC officer Sean Kelly faces his second charge of making lewd phone calls after already being found guilty of making indecent calls before — and blaming it on a member of the public. His co-worker, Tim Buckle, is now under investigation by an outside agency for his handling of the case. 

Now, there's Doug Snelgrove.

Wooden walls surrounding a construction area in downtown St. John's were spray painted Friday night after a jury found a police officer not guilty of sexual assault. (Jeremy Eaton/CBC)

When else, in its more than centuries-long history, has the RNC had so many hits to its reputation in such a short amount of time? What will it take for the Constabulary to regain full public confidence? What does it mean for the other men and women who serve with the RNC?

And, most importantly, why should people have faith in the police in this province?

To some key observers, the force's reputation is fractured, but not shattered.

"I certainly wouldn't call it normal," Justice and Public Safety Minister Andrew Parsons said of the situations facing the RNC. 

"Just because we've had isolated incidents involving a few people that shouldn't certainly tar the actions — the great actions — of many."

It's understandable, Parsons said, that the public has had its confidence in the RNC waver.

​Is it a crisis of confidence? No doubt, and Parsons said that's why it's important to listen to what comes out of these investigations and inquiries.

Const. Sean Kelly and Staff Sgt. Tim Buckle

After being found guilty of making lewd phone calls to a woman at her place of work then blaming a member of the public, disgraced Const. Sean Kelly is facing a second charge of making an indecent phone call.

Kelly has pleaded not guilty to making an indecent call to a woman on Oct. 15, 2012.

He is awaiting a decision on his appeal of his conviction.

He has been suspended without pay from the RNC until all court matters are complete.

Const. Sean Kelly was convicted in 2015 of placing lewd phone calls. He now faces a second charge of placing an indecent call to a second woman in 2015. (Colleen Connors/CBC)

Meanwhile, Nova Scotia's Serious Incident Response Team (SIRT) has been called in to investigate how now-Staff-Sgt. Tim Buckle handled the investigation of Kelly. 

An Ontario Provincial Police investigation found there were deficiencies in the handling of Buckle's involvement in the Kelly case but said there were no grounds for criminal charges to be laid.

RNC Staff Sgt. Tim Buckle, who also testified at the Don Dunphy police shooting inquiry, will not face criminal charges for his handling of an investigation into one of his officers, Const. Sean Kelly. (CBC)

Multiple investigations into the case were prompted after Judge Wayne Gorman said the RNC's investigation into the complaints against Kelly should have been handled differently — and possibly should not have been investigated by the RNC at all.

Buckle gave Kelly a "heads up" that he was being investigated for making lewd calls. 

However, in a statement released Thursday to the media, Buckle said his actions resulted in Kelly's conviction. He went as far as alleging malicious prosecution against the RNC, the provincial government and the lawyer who lodged the complaint against the veteran cop.

Buckle says he is considering legal options against all three.

Const. Carl Douglas (Doug) Snelgrove

​Despite calls for his immediate dismissal, Snelgrove will first have to go through the complaint process as outlined in the RNC Act. 

He was found not guilty last week of sexually assaulting an intoxicated 21-year-old woman after driving her home in his police cruiser, prompting public outcry and protests.

Carl Douglas (or Doug) Snelgrove was found not guilty of sexual assault by a Supreme Court of Newfoundland and Labrador jury on Feb. 24. (Glenn Payette/CBC)

The constable, who served in the northeast Avalon, has been suspended without pay since July 2015. That status will remain in place while the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary Public Complaints Commission resumes its work on a complaint the woman filed against Snelgrove. 

In a statement last week, RNC Chief Bill Janes said Snelgrove will also remain suspended until the "appropriate discipline" has been determined. 

Snelgrove could face termination.

Const. Joe Smyth

On the stand at the Barry judicial inquiry, Smyth said he felt he had no other option than to shoot Don Dunphy, 58, inside the injured workers's Mitchells Brook home on Easter Sunday in 2015.

But that explanation hasn't stopped calls for Smyth's dismissal.

RNC Const. Joe Smyth, seen speaking with his lawyer, Jerome Kennedy, shot and killed a man in his Mitchells Brook home on Easter Sunday 2015. (Paul Daly/The Canadian Press)

Independent investigations have ruled that Smyth should not be disciplined and that he used the proper amount of force, given the situation he says he was faced with.

A public inquiry into the death of Dunphy has already heard from Smyth, and it will again. Smyth is expected to take the stand again on Monday morning. Smyth is likely to be asked about Blackberry messages that he exchanged with Tim Buckle, and which came to light following his initial testimony.

SIRT investigation

CBC News went to court last year to fight for the right to release information on a criminal investigation involving upwards of five senior members of the RNC.

The probe is also being conducted by SIRT.

Sources told CBC News the investigation involves top RNC brass, and is focused on their use of a criminal as an informant during a high-level investigation.

The informant was supposed to provide the RNC with information it needed to crack its case. But sources say the informant continued to commit crimes without being arrested — even though some of the incidents were witnessed by police officers.

The investigation and subsequent report is nearing completion.

Justice Minister Andrew Parsons speaking at the Confederation Building in St. John's. (Mark Quinn/ CBC)

Guilty or not guilty, wrongdoing or not, the optics aren't good, and they are easily overshadowing the good work done by officers on a daily basis.

Full confidence, minister says

Despite all this, Parsons said he has full confidence in Janes, who has been chief since February 2014, and the men and women who serve with the force. 

Janes says he strongly supports the establishment of the province's own serious incident response team. 

"The women and men of the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary are exceptional people and they deserve the trust and they deserve the confidence of the community," Janes told reporters Thursday. 

"We'll make our way through this time and we'll come out stronger."

About the Author

Ariana Kelland is a reporter with the CBC Newfoundland and Labrador bureau in St. John's.

With files from Carolyn Stokes