N.L. police watchdog to start collecting race-based data
SIRT-NL director Michael King says goal is to improve quality of justice in province
Police and Public Trust, a CBC News Atlantic investigative unit project, scrutinizes the largely off-limits police complaint and discipline systems across the region. Journalists are using access to information laws, and in some cases court challenges, to obtain discipline records and data.
Newfoundland and Labrador's police watchdog is beginning to collect race-based data to look for inequity in civilians' interactions with police.
Michael King was appointed the first civilian director of the Serious Incident Response Team — which investigates dealings with police that involve serious injury, death or sexual assault — in 2019.
King, who shaped the oversight body after it became active in 2021, said information on who files complaints will be crucial in identifying racial bias in the justice system.
"That will inform our interventions going forward in order to improve the equity and the quality of justice in Newfoundland and Labrador," said King in a recent interview.
"It's not a simple exercise to determine how you're going to collect the data. It's a more complicated and lengthier process than you might think and it involves collaboration."
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King said he has reached out to leaders in Indigenous communities and organizations to determine the best way to collect, gather and maintain that information.
"Our team is about holding police accountable and if there are particular patterns that exist within police agencies involving criminal behaviour, we need to know that so we can better serve the people, the better deal with these cases."
Memorial University of Newfoundland criminologist Adrienne Peters said in general terms, data collection is crucial in understanding flaws within the justice system, including policing.
Peters, who worked for the RCMP in British Columbia to gather and interpret data, said there seemed to be a hesitancy in the province, including by the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary, to agree to take part in her studies.
"To move forward to understand an issue or a challenge or a problem or an obstacle, whatever it might be, you have to thoroughly research and understand it," Peters said in a recent interview.
Sulaimon Giwa, associate professor at Memorial University of Newfoundland's school of social work, said tracking race-based data benefits marginalized communities twofold, beginning with SIRT-NL acknowledging that these kinds of injustices happen in the first place.
"Once we track and we acknowledge that there's malfeasances that are actually taking place, then it also allows us the opportunity to be able to offer remedial alternatives or remedial actions to be able to begin to address those issues as they're surfacing," Giwa said.
Giwa encourages SIRT-NL to not just consult but also invite marganalized communities and organizations to participate in the development of policy surrounding race-based data collection.
In 2020, Ontario became the first province to mandate all its police officers to identify and document the race of an individual on whom they have used force.
Two years later, Ontario's Special Investigations Unit began collecting race-based data.
In a statement, Newfoundland and Labrador's Justice Department said it is working with Statistics Canada in its efforts to improve police data collection, including through the "incorporation of Indigenous and racialized information."
Giwa said other provincial entities that provide public services should also begin to move forward in the direction of collecting race-based data.
"I just fear that just one organization doing it gives us some of that information but not enough to be able to make a comprehensive analysis or assessment of where we need to go next," Giwa said.
Giwa said the province is at an advantage in its ability to watch and learn what has happened in other major cities. Racial tensions and protests have exploded in recent years, in the wake of high-profile police-involved killings, like that of George Floyd in 2020.
"Increasingly we're seeing diversity of the province move from being very monolithic in terms of being mostly white to now all these different individuals coming from all parts of the world that are coming into the province making it what it is," said Giwa.
"I don't think that police organizations need to necessarily wait until we're seeing some of the things that we've been seeing in other major metropolitan cities in Canada for them to be acting in the way that they're acting. I think that we can take some of those lessons and then start to apply them in the context of Newfoundland and Labrador."
King said he is also focusing on how to better serve vulnerable and Indigenous communities, through introducing community liaisons that would monitor and observe SIRT investigations.
"It bridges any gap that might appear between between our team and the community. It creates understanding, it creates communication," said King.
King said he has also met with the St. John's Status of Women Centre in St. John's to consider a liaison in cases where a police officer is accused of sexual assault.
"We're building relationships with the community where we're hoping to establish trust in our own agency. Again, that takes time," King said.
"You have to earn trust. You don't get it automatically. We're relatively a new agency but I'm committed to working at this and building trust over a period of time and get to the point where people feel that the police are being held accountable."
At any given time, King said, the team carries between 12 to 15 files. Seven police officers have been charged since 2021.
"I think our record establishes that we are more than willing to hold police officers accountable. In our brief history, we've already laid charges against several police officers, very serious charges against seven police officers in the province, which, in my view, is a high number," said King.
"I think our the proof is in the pudding. I think our record speaks for itself at this point."