Saskatoon·In Depth

'It's still police investigating police,' Cree lawyer says of Sask. oversight changes

"The jury is still out on whether or not these resources will fully enable us to do the expanded role that we have been asked to do," says Brent Cotter of Saskatchewan's Public Complaints Commission.

'Jury is still out' on whether new resources are enough for Public Complaints Commission, chair says

'It's still police investigating police,' says Cree lawyer Stephanie Lavallee, left, of the police oversight changes announced this week by the government. (Guy Quenneville/CBC)

The head of the body that investigates allegations of police misconduct in Saskatchewan says new money and powers meant to reform police oversight will help make the system more transparent. 

But Brent Cotter, the chair of the Public Complaints Commission (PCC), said his small and already-swamped team of investigators is also facing a potentially heavier workload. 

"The jury is still out on whether or not these resources will fully enable us to do the expanded role that we have been asked to do," Cotter said Thursday.

Earlier this week, Saskatchewan's Ministry of Justice announced several changes to its system of police oversight. One change will have the PCC take over the responsibility for investigation observers: the people (usually ex-police officers) previously appointed by the government to watch over investigations of serious incidents such as fatal police shootings.

Cotter and his staff will now be in charge of recruiting those observers. When the victim of a shooting is Indigenous, two observers will now be brought in, including one of First Nation or Métis ancestry. Observers without a police background will also be allowed.  

"It will build some confidence in constituencies where these kinds of serious incidents have been visited upon them significantly," said Cotter of the Indigenous participation. "And I think that will add a degree of transparency to the police investigation in those cases.

"Having said that … I think we would be better off with an independent agency conducting those investigations: a non-police agency that has the same kind of authority and resources as a police agency and that is completely independent."

People in Saskatchewan have called for that kind of system for years. This week, Justice Minister Don Morgan said he is not in favour of civilian-involved bodies like the Alberta Serious Incident Response Team, calling them "costly."  

Saskatchewan Justice Minister Don Morgan says he is not in favour of civilian-involved bodies like the Alberta Serious Incident Response Team, calling them 'costly.' (Mark Taylor/The Canadian Press)

Stephanie Lavallee, a Cree lawyer from the Cowessess First Nation, said she found Morgan's stance "disheartening."

"These things might be costly. How do we know unless we try that here in Saskatchewan?" said Lavallee, who in 2018 represented the family of Cree man Brydon Whitstone during a coroner's inquest. 

Whitstone was fatally shot in North Battleford by an RCMP officer following a police chase in October 2017. Regina Police Service investigated the shooting.  

"Who should investigate police?" Lavallee said. "Should it be police or should it be civilians? Who's going to keep them more accountable?"

Lavallee said having an Indigenous investigation observer is "a start to Indigenizing our justice system a little more."

But she questioned what power the second observer would have.

"Are they going to be under the thumb of the first investigation observer? How is that dynamic going to work? What if there's a power struggle? Which one has more say?"

Police agencies can no longer investigate themselves

Under another change announced Wednesday, a Saskatchewan police force will not be allowed to investigate itself. 

That's what happened in the case of Steven Rigby. 

Rigby died in a police-involved shooting with the Saskatoon Police Service on the outskirts of the city during Christmas week of 2018. It's not clear if Rigby died by his own hand or if he was fatally shot by an officer.  

Rigby's mother, Carey Rigby-Wilcox, said she expected an outside agency to examine the circumstances of her son's death. 

"And then when you find out it's not, it just opens more questions for you," she said. 

"If there was a change and an outside investigation, then it just eliminates all those questions and it makes the Saskatoon city police very clear and very transparent. And then there's no room for question or error."

For Agatha Eaglechief, however, the police oversight changes don't go far enough.

Eaglechief's son Austin died in a car chase with Saskatoon police exactly three years ago today: June 19, 2017. 

Saskatoon Police Service investigated itself in that incident, too. 

"They need to get out of province," Agatha said. 

"It's still police investigating police," echoed Lavallee.

Speaking at a board of police commissioners meeting Thursday, Saskatoon police Chief Troy Cooper said his force had asked the government to keep serious incident investigations separate from the PCC. 

"The Public Complaints Commission handles minor discipline offences," Cooper said.

"The serious injury and death investigations are more complex and they take a little bit higher level of scrutiny and oversight and experience and training and we just want to make sure that that we don't try to blend those two things together," he said.

"We just want to make sure that [the PCC is] properly funded and resourced as well."

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Justice said Friday it would work with the Public Complaints Commission on a staffing plan "that takes into account how best to use the additional funding being provided."

"It's important to note that investigation observers are contracted on an as-needed basis. As such, we cannot predict how many investigation observers will be needed in a given fiscal year," the spokesperson added. 

More money, more responsibility

The ministry announced $350,000 in new money for the Public Complaints Commission on Wednesday. Cotter said the new money will allow the commission to hire three new investigators, bringing its total investigative team to seven members.

Those extra people will allow the PCC to handle a larger percentage of the complaints it receives from the public and police, instead of farming out more than half of its files to the Saskatoon or Regina police service due to the high volume of complaints, as it does now, Cotter said. 

Last year saw between 140 and 150 complaints cross the commission's desk. About 60 per cent of those were subcontracted, Cotter said.

"They do excellent professional work on our behalf but they are the police agency investigating the complaints of misconduct by one of their own members," Cotter said. 

The PCC typically uses ex-police members as investigators, given the expertise needed for tasks like interviewing, Cotter said. 

But in recruiting its new investigations, the commission will cast its net wide to find "people who have the skillset but not necessarily drawn from police," he said.

Police board calls for 'sufficient resources' 

The commission may still need to do some farming out, Cotter said. 

The ministry has now tasked the PCC with handling several new types of cases, including allegations of sexual harassment within Saskatchewan police forces. 

"Our investigators are very good," Cotter said. "But sexual harassment isn't their area of expertise. So we will have to have independent people that can do that and that will cost us money. How much it will be is kind of anybody's guess. How few of those kinds of complaints will come our way is a complete unknown to us."

The Saskatoon board of police commissioners passed a motion calling on the province to still consider an "independent serious incident response team to eliminate the possibility of a police service investigating another police service."

The motion, fronted by Saskatoon Mayor Charlie Clark, also asked that "there are sufficient resources provided to the PCC to undertake their work in a timely fashion, especially in light of any additional powers it may be granted."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Guy Quenneville

Reporter at CBC Saskatoon

Story tips? guy.quenneville@cbc.ca

With files from Morgan Modjeski

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