Sammy Yatim shooting a lesson for new police watchdogs

Manitoba's move to become the fifth province to set up an independent police watchdog comes as Ontario's own agency contends with the controversial shooting of teenager Sammy Yatim by Toronto police Const. James Forcillo.

More provinces moving to independent police oversight as Ontario charges Const. James Forcillo

Protests erupted after the fatal shooting of Sammy Yatim by police in Toronto. It's a case that Manitoba's new police watchdog is following closely and one that illustrates the need for external review. (Galit Rodan/Canadian Press)

A notepad sits on Zane Tessler's bedside table within easy reach. It's there in case he suddenly thinks of yet another task for his growing to-do list on how to set up a police watchdog from scratch.

"Every night I wake up," said Tessler, "and quickly jot down something that I never thought about: What about this and what about this, and this?"

A former Crown attorney, Tessler is charged with creating Manitoba's first independent agency to delve into serious incidents involving police. And, like Ontario's Special Investigations Unit, it will be able to lay criminal charges.

When it becomes operational in 2014, it will make Manitoba the fifth province to install such an independent review agency for police.

Tessler describes the Independent Investigation Unit as the part of the "next wave" of police oversight in Canada. "This is the next level of investigative agencies and it's a very, very exciting opportunity," he said.

As part of his preparation, Tessler has been talking to the four other agencies that preceded his — and he's been carefully watching the Sammy Yatim case unfold in Ontario, home of Canada's oldest civilian police watchdog.

"Our very first case could be just that," Tessler says. "It could be that kind of a shooting and we have to be ready to react to it."

Earlier this week, Ontario's police watchdog, the SIU, charged Toronto Const. James Forcillo with second-degree murder in Yatim's death.

The controversial police shooting, caught by a bystander video in which nine shots can be heard, has spurred a national debate about the police use of lethal force and led to numerous protests in Toronto.

Three other fatal incidents recently involving RCMP in Alberta — two involving firearms and the third a Taser — have further raised questions about police conduct in these tense confrontations.

'Still evolving'

Peter Tinsley, a former SIU director who currently works for the Institute for Justice Sector Development in The Hague, Netherlands, says Canada ranks among the top in the world when it comes to police oversight.

"We have one of the most sophisticated systems for oversight anywhere in the world and it continues to develop," he said.

In Canada, unlike some countries, police oversight is often divided between two agencies: one that looks into public complaints about police and the other that examines potential crimes or serious misconduct.

Each province has a body that handles complaints about the police, but only five, including Manitoba, have an agency that can examine potential crimes on the part of officers.

Ontario's SIU was created in 1990, Alberta's Serious Incident Response Team (ASIRT) came on board in 2007, and B.C.'s Independent Investigations Office and Nova Scotia's Serious Incident Response Team (SIRT) opened their doors last year.

The Quebec government is working on creating a civilian oversight body to examine incidents involving police.

Stan Lowe, president of the Canadian Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement and also B.C.'s Police Complaint Commissioner, says many issues still face this kind of oversight, particularly the debate over whether those investigating police should be former officers, or civilians with no connection to policing.

"Generally speaking," he says, "governments are deciding that oversight is a good thing."

In Manitoba's case, Tessler hopes to eventually strike a balance between civilian and police investigators in his new unit. But he also notes that training civilians can take time.

A tipping point

The death of Crystal Taman and the police handling of the case spurred Manitoba to create its first police watchdog to probe criminal matters. ((Taman inquiry))

"Truly, most of the really good investigators who have handled tough cases are police," says Bruce MacFarlane, a former federal prosecutor and professor of criminal law at the University of Manitoba.

But he also notes that for years the Winnipeg police railed against having an external body investigating its officers. The force developed a professional standards unit to probe criminal matters among its employees.

"The public generally doesn't have confidence where the police service is investigating itself," said MacFarlane. "It just doesn't resonate with the public and that's why you need that external body. You need to ensure that the public has confidence in the decisions that are made."

Like most provinces, Manitoba required a specific controversy before changing its course on police oversight.

The tipping point was the 2005 death of Crystal Taman, a 40-year-old mother of three, who was killed when an off-duty officer struck her vehicle from behind after a night of partying. The botched police service's investigation into one of their own was the last straw.

"There can be a growing demand from a community, but then generally there is some sort of catalyst that brings the whole thing into focus and the pressure to bear on the government," said Tinsley.