Policing the police in Sask.: Time to consider independent civilian agency, says justice official

An official with Saskatchewan's Ministry of Justice says it's time to consider an independent agency to oversee investigations into serious complaints against police in the province.

No public access to findings in current system

There is no independent agency in Saskatchewan investigating police when someone is seriously hurt. (Dan Zakreski/CBC)

In February, Ryan Donard ran into the Fond du Lac River in Stony Rapids after RCMP responded to a complaint at a house in the northern Saskatchewan community, according to a news release.

Donard never came out.

Within days, RCMP asked investigators with Prince Albert Police Service to take over the investigation into what happened.

The provincial justice department also appointed an independent observer to review the final investigation and report back to the deputy minister.

If the Prince Albert police decide that the RCMP did nothing wrong and the provincial observer agrees, then that's all the public will hear of what happened.

Saskatchewan is one of the few provinces that doesn't have some sort of civilian agency providing independent oversight of police.

Nova Scotia, Ontario, Quebec, Manitoba, Alberta and British Columbia all have standalone groups.

Alta. versus Sask. models

The Saskatchewan Ministry of Justice chooses its independent observers from a list that includes retired police officers and individuals with investigative expertise.

"The expectation is that they're to come in, observe what the police service is doing [and] what's going on with that investigation, and report back to the deputy minister with what it is that they found," said ministry spokesman Drew Wilby.

"The goal is to ensure the investigation is done soundly and appropriately."

'The public need confidence in the system, and they need to know that the system is operating appropriately,' said Ministry of Justice spokesman Drew Wilby. (CBC)

This differs significantly from how civilian agencies such as the Alberta Serious Incident Response Team operates.

Executive director Susan Hughson thinks the perception of transparency is critical when police are under investigation.

"As good as the investigation can be by the home agency, which is what happens in some cases, there is always going to be that lingering suspicion that they may be protecting their own," she said.

Susan Hughson's Alberta Serious Incident Response Team releases a summary of evidence and its conclusion to the public. (CBC)

The Alberta team has its own investigators, and the structure includes a "challenge function" that allows Hughson to recommend other avenues be explored.

And once the team finishes an investigation, it shares its findings with the family, the police and the public.

I would say an independent investigative body is better for everyone.- Susan Hughson, Alberta Serious Incident Response Team

"Our position is that at the end of our investigation, a family should understand basically what happened, and how I arrived at whatever conclusion I've arrived at — whether it's that I think there's reasonable grounds to believe an offence was committed, or that I think the use of force was justified," said Hughson.

"They may not always agree with me, but they will know what the evidence was and they will know how I arrived at that conclusion."

The team also releases a summary of evidence and its conclusion to the public.

"I would say an independent investigative body is better for everyone," said Hughson.

Public Complaints Commission chair encourages new approach

There is some independent oversight in Saskatchewan.
'I think I would be inclined to see us move in the way of civilian oversight of serious incidents,' said Brent Cotter. (University of Saskatchewan)

The Saskatchewan Public Complaints Commission investigates complaints about police conduct. Chair Brent Cotter said the key word is complaints: The commission can initiate investigations, but for the most part becomes involved when someone, usually a family member, makes a formal complaint.

Cotter, one-time deputy minister of justice and a member of the Canadian Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement, thinks it's time for Saskatchewan to consider a new model.

"I think I would be inclined to see us move in the way of civilian oversight of serious incidents, but I think the exact model is open for meaningful and intelligent conversation," he said.

Ministry evaluating options

Wilby said the province is considering changes on two fronts.

First, it sees some merit in making the now-confidential reports to the Ministry of Justice accessible through Freedom of Information laws.

Second, it also thinks the time may be right to consider an outside agency.

"The public need confidence in the system, and they need to know that the system is operating appropriately," he said.

"It's something that we need to look at what's working in other jurisdictions."