Questions remain as civilian-led team probing police-involved deaths in Sask. set to launch in fall

Saskatchewan's new team for investigating deaths and other serious police-involved incidents will launch this fall, but questions remain about its future makeup and the degree to which it will address longstanding concerns about police investigating police.

'We want to make sure that there's some engagement of the First Nations community': justice minister

Cree lawyer Stephanie Lavallee, left, said Saskatchewan's Serious Incident Response Team should include investigators from an Indigenous background. (Guy Quenneville/CBC)

Saskatchewan's new team for investigating deaths and other serious police-involved incidents will launch this fall, but questions remain about its future cost, makeup and the degree to which it will address longstanding concerns about police investigating police.

Last week, the provincial government announced it's spending $287,000 to set up the Serious Incident Response Team. On Monday, the Ministry of Justice further confirmed the team will be led by a civilian executive director. 

Saskatchewan's SIRT will investigate sexual assaults, serious injuries and deaths that occur while someone is in police custody.

But while the ministry says an Indigenous liaison will "[advise] investigators on community interactions" if the victim is First Nations or Métis, it remains unclear to what degree the investigations themselves will reflect diverse perspectives.

Stephanie Lavallee, a Cree lawyer from the Cowessess First Nation who represented the family of an Indigenous man who was fatally shot by an RCMP officer in 2017 after a police chase in North Battleford, Sask., said she understands the need for experienced investigators and that it may be difficult to find Indigenous people with the needed skills. 

Lavallee, who now works for Legal Aid Saskatchewan, said that in cases involving an Indigenous victim, two investigators should be assigned the case — including one from an Indigenous background.

Justice Minister Gordon Wyant said the team's executive director will hire the investigators and that he would not want to second-guess who will investigate which cases.

"Certainly we want to make sure that there's some engagement of the First Nations community," Wyant said, adding that the liaison will help investigators navigate "cultural sensitivities."

Wyant said the province hopes to hire the executive director by Canada Day.

"We're looking for someone that has some legal experience, someone who's experienced in police work, perhaps someone who has experience in administrative law," he said. 

Lavallee welcomed the involvement of civilian members in the team but approached the government's announcement with caution. 

"That's my main concern," she said of Saskatchewan getting its own SIRT team. "Is this is just another layer of police protection?"

Diverse perspectives needed: former chair

Up to now, Saskatchewan police agencies involved in serious confrontations have often asked another police force to investigate.

At the same time, investigation observers — who are appointed by the Ministry of Justice and are typically ex-police officers — have kept tabs on those investigations and reported back to the ministry. Those reports are not made public. 

A growing chorus of Indigenous people has criticized the system over the years for not appearing impartial, weighted as it is toward the involvement of police.

Brent Cotter, the former chair of Saskatchewan's Public Complaints Commission (PCC) — which investigates comparatively minor police incidents and will house the new SIRT team — said requiring a quota of Indigenous SIRT investigators would be too rigid.

Nor can the team be completely devoid of police, given the need for investigative experience, he said. 

"At the same time, to build community confidence, you need to draw from a broader range of sources and to build a team that's more than just retired police officers," Cotter said. 

"You want to have both a diversity of experience and a diversity of perspective."

Some jurisdictions have legislated the requirement that half of the teams consist of people who have never been police officers, he added. 

Wyant said to not use experienced officers "would involve a significant expenditure in terms of educating and training other people."

Brent Cotter is the former chair of Saskatchewan's Public Complaints Commission, under which the Serious Incident Response Team will be established. (University of Saskatchewan)

Wyant did not detail how much a fully-operational SIRT team would cost. 

The workload of a serious incident response team can be hard to predict. The last fatal police-involved shooting in Saskatchewan was in August 2019.

Cotter said a permanent stable of four investigators and an annual budget of $1 million would make sense in Saskatchewan.

In the absence of serious cases, Cotter said SIRT investigators could help PCC investigators with their caseload, which has been backlogged in the past. 

Cotter said the government's initial financial commitment to the SIRT team was "significantly overdue," and that Saskatchewan police groups have been warming to the idea of civilian-led oversight.

"It's a lot more helpful when that's a finding that's made by an independent body than by another police service down the road," Cotter said. "And some of those police services are being burdened by the costs of helping to investigate some other police service."

Team needs to be able to lay charges: lawyer

One of two lawyers representing the family of Colten Boushie says one element in particular is needed to give teeth to Saskatchewan's SIRT.

The RCMP's watchdog recently found that officers racially discriminated against Boushie's mother and mishandled evidence when investigating Boushie's shooting death by a farmer. Recommendations to improve RCMP service were made but are not legally binding.    

"From my perspective, in order to be effective and inspire confidence in the public, the SIRT must have the jurisdiction to lay criminal charges against police officers," said lawyer Chris Murphy. "Only if SIRT is given this power will Saskatchewan's police officers understand that they will be held accountable if they commit a criminal offence."

If that doesn't happen, the money for SIRT "would be better off" diverted to groups like Legal Aid Saskatchewan, Murphy said. 

Currently, once a police body in Saskatchewan investigates the actions of another, provincial Crown prosecutors review the case to see if the laying of any criminal charges is warranted. 

Wyant said that same process will occur once SIRT launches but noted that within 60 days, the serious incident response team will release a summary of its findings to the public. 


Guy Quenneville

Reporter at CBC Saskatoon

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