Domestic violence cases cause N.S. to lead country in charges against police officers
'We are independent, we are impartial, nobody tells us what to do'
Nova Scotia's police watchdog lays more criminal charges by percentage against officers it investigates than any similar agency in the country, but many of those charges involve what officers do in their off hours rather than their actions on the job.
SIRT is an independent, civilian-led police oversight body. It investigates any serious matter that involves death, serious injury, domestic violence or other matters of public interest that may arise from the actions of police in Nova Scotia.
"We have, I believe, the highest rate in the country of laying charges against active members," said Felix Cacchione the director of SIRT.
There have been concerns raised that SIRT lacks ethnic diversity and its investigators could lack objectivity.
Erick Laming is a PhD candidate in criminology at the University of Toronto and a member of the Shabot Obaadjiwan First Nation. He is researching police use of force, police oversight and accountability especially as it relates to Black and Indigenous communities.
SIRT charges about 20-25 per cent of the officers it investigates every year, according to Laming. "They're kind of an outlier when you compare them with the other agencies across Canada," he said.
The country's five other police watchdog groups only have a charge rate of between two and five per cent, he said.
In the 2018- 2019 fiscal year, SIRT laid five charges against police officers after completing 18 investigations, according to the organization's 2018-2019 annual report.
Part of the reason SIRT lays more charges is because the organization has a mandate to investigate domestic violence allegations against officers, said Laming.
"Ontario certainly does not do that and I can't think of any other province that does it," said Ian Scott, the former director of Ontario's Special Investigations Unit, that province's police watchdog. "Interesting enough, it seems to lead to the majority of their criminal charges."
Eleven of 24 charges SIRT laid from April 2012 to March 31, 2017, were related to domestic violence. Tied for second place are sexual assault and breach of condition charges with three of each. That data comes from SIRT's 2016-2017 annual report.
Of the five charges laid in 2018-2019, two involved domestic violence, one was a sexual assault charge, while the fourth was a theft. The fifth charge was an assault that carried over from the previous year.
Laming said SIRT's high rate of charges also has to do with its much smaller caseload compared to other watchdog agencies like those in Ontario or B.C.
Even if just a handful of charges are laid in Nova Scotia, it will appear that SIRT has a high charge rate, he said. For example, SIRT's 18 completed cases and five criminal charges results in a charge rate of 28 per cent.
Laming said despite SIRT's good work on domestic violence, when police are on the job they're not facing many charges.
"An officer-involved shooting, usually they are acquitted, or they're found to use justifiable force, so they wouldn't result in charges," he said.
In a given year, SIRT investigates around 40-50 cases. It has taken on about 20 cases so far this year, said Cacchione.
He said the decision to lay charges is based on evidence collected through extensive investigations that could involve interviewing numerous witnesses, analyzing forensics and collecting video footage. From that information, SIRT will decide if an officer acted appropriately given the circumstances.
"We are independent, we are impartial, nobody tells us what to do," said Cacchione. "Nobody dictates the outcome of what we do. I'm hoping that the public will recognize that we are not part of the police, we are not part of the court system. We are an independent civilian oversight agency."
That distinction can be difficult to make for some, considering SIRT's staff of four investigators are either current or retired police officers.
That doesn't instill public confidence in the system, said Laming.
"From the public perception perspective that might taint some things because you're always going to say, 'Well, police are investigating police, there's really no independence.' So once blue, always blue. Kind of there's always a bias involved." he said.
Laming said SIRT should hire true civilian investigators who have never been police officers to reassure people an investigation will be done fairly. Some government departments have investigators who can be trained to handle criminal offences, he said.
Public trust would also improve, according to Laming and Scott, with greater diversity in SIRT and other police watchdogs.
Right now, SIRT's four investigators are all white men.
Laming said police are more likely to use force in Indigenous and Black communities. To use a white investigator in such cases to examine the police's conduct would not foster trust, he said.
"Having better representation and diversity will at least provide hopefully a little more objectivity into the investigation," he said.
"The people involved in the cases may be more willing to talk to those investigators which will hopefully open the door up and allow for more nuanced or stronger investigations."
Cacchione said he would like to hire a female investigator and someone who is not white when positions open up. He said diversity is important, and he must balance that while also finding a well-trained investigator.
There has been no discussion at SIRT about using civilian investigators that were never police officers.
When Cacchione took over as director, he was also concerned that the seconded police officers and retired officers working under him would be biased toward other officers.
"I was pleasantly surprised that there wasn't. These are professional persons. They have no bias and I can't stress that enough."
Cacchione said it is ultimately up to him to decide whether a charge should be laid. Even if an investigator recommends no charges be laid, Cacchione can overrule.
Laming and Scott said there is a room for improvement but said SIRT is doing a good job.
In 2018-2019, the organization completed its investigations in 109.56 days on average compared to Ontario's Special Investigations Unit that took 129.39 days on average to close a case in 2018, according to the SIU's annual report.
SIRT also provides a good level of transparency, posting a summary of its investigations online and sending out media releases.
Quebec's police watchdog, BEI Quebec, doesn't provide public summaries of its investigations and doesn't have the authority to charge police officers, said Laming.
Scott said the question is how can society have confidence that force is being used in a reasonable fashion.
"That requires an independent investigation, that requires a thorough investigation and one that reports back to the public, and has the option of laying criminal charges," said Scott, "The best we can do is have organizations like SIRT."