Saskatchewan

Still no timeline in place for independent Sask. police oversight body

Last year, Agatha Eaglechief called for a civilian-led body to investigate serious incidents involving police and death or injury to a person. She joined several others who have called for change. Now, it appears Saskatchewan could be a little bit closer.

Mother of son killed in police chase questions why it's taken so long

Agatha Eaglechief is still speaking out about police reform, three years after her son died in a police chase. (Guy Quenneville/CBC)

Agatha Eaglechief tries to live by her son's advice: "show a lot of love, and toss the hate," but sometimes it's hard not to be angry. 

It's been nearly three years since her son Austin, 22, died during a high-speed chase involving Saskatoon police. Agatha has been calling for police reform ever since.

In August 2019, she joined a long list of others asking the province to create a civilian-led body to investigate serious incidents — like injury or death — involving police officers. Saskatchewan is one of the only provinces in Canada that does not have such an independent oversight body. 

Four months later, Justice Minister Don Morgan agreed that the current model of oversight wasn't acceptable and there was a need for transparency and public accountability.

The ideas raised were not new. A justice ministry spokesperson said in 2017 this was something that needed looking into, but there has still been no change. 

"It's heartbreaking," Agatha said. 

For years, people have called on the province to create a group independent of government to look into cases where police are involved in the injury or death of a civilian. (Matt Duguid/CBC)

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. 

In Saskatchewan, money was allocated in the 2020-21 provincial budget estimates "to make enhancements to police oversight," but it's not clear how much. Work on developing a framework for an independent civilian-led agency to investigate the police was halted amid the pandemic, as the government "reprioritized" work. 

However, Premier Scott Moe said Monday there would be more discussion in the "next couple of weeks" on enhancing oversight. There is still no concrete timeline. 

Sometimes a police force will investigate another police force following a death or serious injury, but other times the investigations are done internally. 

For example, Regina's major crimes unit was tapped to investigate after a Regina police officer fatally shot 41-year-old Geoff Morris last year. A Saskatoon major crimes detective was at the helm of the internal probe into the death of Austin Eaglechief.

Agatha Eaglechief said she doesn't trust the investigation was done without racial bias.

"They basically said my son was a gangster."

Civilian-led groups can lead to change: prof 

Scott Thompson, an assistant professor in sociology at the University of Saskatchewan, says police investigations have limitations that a civilian oversight agency might address.

"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,'" he said.

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

Thompson said, for example, that Manitoba's Independent Investigation Unit has been able to independently examine Criminal Code violations by police or serious injuries during arrests — and could look at patterns between cases — for nearly four years now. 

He said such agencies increase feelings about impartiality and transparency, while offering more societal insight and change. Thompson said research shows the elements of fairness, voice, impartiality and transparency affect whether people believe the system is good. 

Without them, he said people no longer feel protected by the system that's supposed to serve them. A civilian oversight body bolsters these factors, he said.

Thompson said the dangers a breakdown in trust are on display right now in the U.S., where he says the sense of a social contract — following the law in exchange for protection from police — has collapsed. 

Money was allocated in the 2020-21 government budget estimates “to make enhancements to police oversight,” but it’s not clear how much. Work was halted on the efforts to develop a framework for an independent civilian-led agency to investigate the police amid the pandemic, as the government 'reprioritized' work.  (Alicia Bridges/CBC)

Both Thompson and Premier Moe noted Saskatchewan has the Public Complaints Commission as a form of oversight into allegations of municipal police misconduct. However, staff are appointed by the government. 

Chair Brent Cotter said 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. 

Furthermore, Cotter said the commission is underfunded and understaffed, so even 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.

Brent Cotter said while the majority of cases don't indicate misconduct, the Public Complaints Commission needs increased funding so it can do more. (University of Saskatchewan)

That's true for Agatha Eaglechief, who received a letter back from the Public Complaints Commission dated May 27 indicating an investigator with the Saskatoon Police Service professional standards unit investigated her complaint, with a complaints commission investigator appointed to observe.

The letter details events of the police chase involving her son, including how a police officer who was ordered to stop the vehicle from driving away had "a clear view of the driver" and fired two shots, shattering the driver side window where Austin was. He then took off, with the fatal crash happening moments after. 

Cotter wrote in the letter he is "satisfied that officers were in compliance with [Saskatoon Police Service] policies, exercised appropriate judgment and restraint, and their actions do not represent misconduct. There is no cause to recommend the SPS policy is flawed or requires review."

Agatha Eaglechief says she's been working closely with three groups to try and bring police reform: Calling Bear, Saskatoon against Facism and Saskatoon Coordinating Committee Against Police Violence. (Dan Zakreski/CBC)

Agatha still believes her son would still be alive if the shots hadn't been fired.

That's why she keeps praying, passing around petitions on police reform and trying to help others who could one day be in her place, or her son's. She's tired of waiting for change. 

"I'm not going to give up until I know that somebody's heard me." 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Kendall Latimer

Journalist

Kendall Latimer is a Saskatchewan-based reporter for CBC News. Story idea? Let's connect: kendall.latimer@cbc.ca.

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