Sask. expands police oversight, gives Public Complaints Commission more responsibility

On Wednesday, the Saskatchewan government introduced the Police Amendment Act 2020, it is calling a "first step" to improve police oversight.

No independent civilian police oversight agency in Sask.

Saskatoon Southeast MLA Don Morgan
Saskatchewan Minister of Justice Don Morgan said in 2019 that the province was looking to "increase transparency and public confidence in police oversight." (Mark Taylor/The Canadian Press)

The Saskatchewan government introduced the Police Amendment Act 2020 on Wednesday, calling it a "first step" to improve police oversight.

The legislation will increase the workload of the Public Complaints Commission (PCC), a five-person, non-police body appointed by the government.

Previously, the deputy minister of justice would appoint an investigation observer in cases where someone has suffered injury or death in custody or as a result of police actions. 

The first change involves transferring the responsibility of the process to the PCC, which will also be required to publish online summaries of the results of investigation observer reports.

Saskatchewan Attorney General and Minister of Justice Don Morgan said the shift in responsibility to the PCC to appoint an independent observer will ensure more objectivity and oversight.

"It cannot be a manner of simply somebody in Saskatoon saying 'this has to go to Regina. That's our buddies,'" Morgan said. "It has to be somebody from the outside. Somebody from the PCC will make that determination."

Morgan said he is not in favour of civilian-involved bodies like the Alberta Serious Incident Response Team or Ontario's Special Investigations Unit, which he said are "expensive, costly" and "police investigating police at a different level."

Saskatchewan NDP policing critic Nicole Sarauer said the new legislation still allows for police to investigate police. 

"Based on our initial look at it it really looks like a half-measure," Sarauer said.

Sarauer noted that the PCC is overwhelmed with complaints. She said the government should address issues like housing, mental health and addictions.

There were 60 complaints handled by the PCC in 2018-2019 and 34 of those cases have not yet been completed, according to the most recent provincial data. 

The new legislation:

  • Allows investigation observers to include investigations of sexual assaults and incidents involving off-duty police officers.
  • Requires appointment of a second investigation observer of First Nations or Métis ancestry in incidents involving First Nations or Métis individuals.
  • Allows people other than current or retired police officers to be appointed investigation observers.
  • Requires police services to ask another police organization to investigate serious injuries, deaths or sexual assaults that occur in police custody or as a result of the actions of a police officer.
  • Allows PCC to investigate internal complaints of workplace and sexual harassment made by police officers and civilian staff.
  • Institutes a new process for PCC to investigate complaints against classes of special constables, such as conservation officers and highway traffic officers working as part of the provincial protection and response team.

The government said it is committing $350,000 from this year's budget to hire staff to manage the PCC's "increased workload."

"Through this Act, we will be making numerous enhancements to improve transparency and accountability in our provincial police oversight processes," Morgan said. 

Minister of Corrections and Policing Christine Tell said the changes were "the most significant" since the PCC was established in 2006.

"As a government, we will continue to work with our partners in policing and the larger community to ensure that police oversight in Saskatchewan is transparent and accountable to the public," Tell said.

Tell, a former police officer, was once investigated for ethics violations while a member of the Regina Police Service. She was later cleared.

"It was not comfortable at all. I'm not saying it should be," Tell said. "But I didn't just walk in there thinking 'ah well, this is all good, there is nothing going to happen to me.'"

She said there is a "healthy respect" for professional standards branches in police services, but added they are "not well liked" and are a metaphorical "occupational hazard."

No independent civilian oversight yet

In 2019, Morgan said the province was looking to "increase transparency and public confidence in police oversight."

Both Alberta and Manitoba have civilian-led, non-governmental police oversight bodies. Saskatchewan is one of the only provinces in Canada that does not have such an organization. 

Police oversight and violence have once again come under scrutiny since the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, who died after police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck for almost nine minutes. 

"Police investigations aren't designed to do wider systemic analysis and look at issues of 'what are the causes of crime' or 'how do we heal relationships," said Scott Thompson, an assistant professor in sociology at the University of Saskatchewan.

"Civilian agencies are able to have this greater capacity to investigate those important causal factors."

PCC Chair Brent Cotter told CBC last week there are gaps in the current system. For example, the commission does investigations on a case-by-case basis and historically hasn't analyzed wider trends. It is only now updating its complaint form to start collecting data on gender and race. 

Cotter said the commission is underfunded and understaffed, so as misconduct complaints rise investigators can't keep up. That means most complaints are diverted back to the Regina or Saskatoon police professional standards service divisions, which Cotter said "doesn't generate quite the degree of independence, I think, that citizens are hoping for."

He said the commission needs more resources to ensure people who raise concerns feel "a sense that they got a fair consideration of their complaint," while also boosting public confidence in municipal police forces.

with files from CBC's Kendall Latimer