Nfld. & Labrador

N.L. police watchdog vows to build trust, not force investigation into RNC allegations

The head of the province's serious-incident response team says if people don't want to bring forth sexual assault complaints against the police, he won't force them but will focus on building their trust.
Defence lawyer Mike King is the director of the Serious Incident Response Team of Newfoundland and Labrador, and the only member of the team that is not a police officer. (CBC)

Newfoundland and Labrador's police watchdog won't investigate a rash of sexual assault allegations involving the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary unless the women involved want it to happen, as the head of the agency vows to build trust in its abilities, where some critics say there is little to be had.

At least 12 women have been in touch with St. John's lawyer Lynn Moore to speak about their experiences with sexual assault and on-duty RNC officers, Moore said this week. No formal complaints have yet been filed.

Without a complaint, the head of the group that investigates police matters in the province said he won't force an investigation but has reached out to Moore to offer it as an option.

"We've also expressed that we very much respect and support their decision, whatever that may be. So we won't be approaching anyone and pressuring them to give us information, if they choose not to," said Mike King, the director of the Serious Incident Response Team of Newfoundland and Labrador.

Moore has said the women don't want to take their allegations to police, and advocates for sexual assault survivors say there's no trust in SIRT-NL, as two of SIRT's three member team are seconded police officers. 

King, a defence lawyer, said the team must, by necessity, involve officers, as they are the only ones highly trained in criminal investigations. Other police watchdogs have gone the civilian route, he said, and have had the wrong charges laid, evidence improperly gathered and entire cases thrown out due to that inexperience.

"That's not good for anybody involved. It's not good for complainants, survivors. It's not good for the agency. It's not good for the police," he said. "We want to avoid that. So we need to have those on staff who know what they're doing and are skilled in investigating."

King stressed the officers on his team are under his direction during their time at SIRT-NL, and he has the final say in all of SIRT-NL's investigations and charges. If those charges involve other police officers, he said, so be it.

"When it comes to accountability and enforcing the law, I couldn't care less if you are a police officer, you will be held accountable, the same as any citizen would be," he told CBC Radio's St. John's Morning Show on Friday.

In a media conference Friday, police Chief Joe Boland likened the process of investigating abuse among the police force to a home renovation project.

"You pull back a wall and you find rot in the wall and then you can repair the wall," he said."You can't improve your home until you get rid of that rot."

Boland, who is set to retire at the end of the month, said he'd like to see those responsible held accountable for their actions.

"The uniform for us is significant. It gives us almost instant trust in a community," he said. "But for that one per cent or so that abuse that, there's significant damage that can be done."

In his call this week to Moore, King said they discussed ways to create a safe space for women to come forward.

"We talked about resources available to my team that we could have available so we can take a trauma-informed approach and do this the right way," he said.

The RNC headquarters is pictured in St. John's. Lawyer Lynn Moore says she's heard from at least 12 women with sexual assault allegations involving on-duty officers. (CBC)

Not repeating 'the mistakes that others have made'

King is the first director of SIRT-NL, which was announced in 2019 and began its first investigation in June, into a fatal shooting in Grand Falls-Windsor.

"This is a new age in Newfoundland and Labrador. We now have civilian oversight of police that we never had before," he said

As part of that new age, King said he's spoken to advocacy groups and non-profits, such as the Indigenous group First Light, the victim services program of the Department of Justice and the St. John's Status of Women's Council. SIRT-NL has tasked the later with arranging a training program for King and his officers

"The best I can do is to listen, to be open to ideas, to hear the ideas of those that that have suggestions as to how we can better deal with these matters and take a trauma-informed approach.… Building trust takes time," he said.

"I don't expect that this is going to happen instantaneously. And it's not an easy thing to do."

King said he hopes to build that trust, and that SIRT-NL is at a starting point, early in its history of investigation police interactions in Newfoundland and Labrador.

"I don't want to repeat the mistakes that others have made in the past. What I want to do is to create a forward-thinking agency. I want to create a safe place for survivors of sexual assault to come forward, one that truly holds the police accountable."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from The St. John's Morning Show

now