Police accountability begins with proper civilian oversight
Canada would benefit from a review of who polices the police
This column is an opinion by Erick Laming, a Shabot Obaadjiwan First Nation PhD candidate in criminology at the University of Toronto. His research focuses on police use of force, police oversight, and Indigenous and Black community members' experiences with law enforcement. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.
Police use-of-force incidents across Canada have ignited public unrest and disapproval of law enforcement authorities. Many voices are calling for the widespread use of body-worn cameras to hold police officers accountable, while others are urging government to defund the police.
An area that has not received the attention it deserves during this upheaval is police oversight.
Who polices the police in Canada?
Some provinces have an independent civilian-led agency that is responsible for investigating serious incidents between the police and public. These agencies are far from perfect, but other jurisdictions have no oversight agency responsible for this work at all.
This is alarming, because in 2020 it means police in six Canadian provinces and territories are still investigating other police for seriously injuring or killing a civilian. Places where there is no civilian-led watchdog agency include Nunavut, Yukon, Northwest Territories, Saskatchewan, Prince Edward Island, and New Brunswick (Newfoundland & Labrador is currently finalizing its oversight agency).
The May 5 officer-involved shooting death of a Nunavut man, for example, resulted in an investigation by officers from the Ottawa Police Service. The six other officer-involved shootings (four of them fatal) of residents in Nunavut by Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers between 2016 and 2020 were also investigated by the Ottawa Police Service.
The June 4 shooting death of Indigenous woman Chantel Moore in New Brunswick by Edmundston Police is being probed by Quebec's police watchdog, the Bureau des enquêtes indépendantes (BEI), which has been tasked with investigating the incident alongside the RCMP.
In Saskatchewan, three police-involved shootings of civilians in 2019 were investigated by other police services from within the province.
How can we hope to improve public trust and confidence in the police when investigations of their actions are completed by other police? Provinces and territories should not be relying on other law enforcement officers to investigate the behaviour of their own.
The governments in Saskatchewan and Nunavut vowed in 2017 and 2018 respectively to establish civilian-led police oversight agencies that have the responsibility for investigating serious incidents involving police conduct. Both jurisdictions have discussed plans, but little action has been taken to date with respect to the creation of these bodies due to financial and logistical constraints, and more recently, the COVID-19 pandemic, which has resulted in "reprioritized" work for Saskatchewan's government.
As already noted, however, simply having police oversight agencies in place is not a panacea. It is important to understand that civilian-led police watchdog groups are far from perfect. Even in provinces that have these bodies, there are problems that require attention.
The Special Investigations Unit (SIU) in Ontario has faced criticism in the past for lacking transparency. Quebec's police watchdog, the BEI, has also been accused of having a "culture of secrecy." The Independent Investigation Unit (IIU) in Manitoba failed to communicate with the public about its investigations for a period of several months last year.
We have work to do in Canada in terms of ensuring effective civilian oversight of police that instills public trust in our law enforcement system.
First, each provincial and territorial government needs to establish a civilian agency that has complete responsibility to investigate major incidents between the police and public in that jurisdiction.
Second, all watchdog agencies need full autonomy in their investigations, and should have the ultimate legislative power to lay criminal charges when warranted. Currently, not all police oversight agencies have this power — in British Columbia and Quebec, for example, they must refer judgment to the Crown, which then determines whether charges are warranted.
Third, Indigenous, Black, and other minorities must serve on civilian-led oversight agencies. This ensures that the needs and views of these groups are represented.
Fourth, police watchdogs must be fully transparent about the investigations they are involved with, and effectively communicate their findings to the public.
Not all police oversight agencies release their reports, which is problematic because it prevents the public from understanding how investigators reach their decision in each case. For example, Quebec's BEI does not release investigative reports, while other provincial agencies such as Alberta's Serious Incident Response Team only release summary investigative reports. It is critical for public transparency that all police watchdogs release their full investigative findings.
Finally, we should seriously consider expanding the mandate of the civilian police oversight system.
Currently, the existing provincial agencies generally investigate major incidents between police and the public, such as those involving death, serious injury, and sexual assault. Police watchdog agencies should have the authority to invoke their mandates with regard to a wider array of police misconduct, such as use-of-force incidents that do not result in serious injury, or behaviour that has a negative impact on the community.
Wide-ranging investigative ability by an objective agency outside the police ranks would help enhance accountability and improve public confidence in the law-enforcement system.
Each province and territory is different, and the specific oversight model in one province may not work well in another. However, recent events have shown the need for independent, civilian-led police oversight agencies. Provincial and territorial watchdogs with both the power to act and a mandate to report to the public will help ensure police conduct is properly investigated, hold officers accountable for their actions, and shore up public confidence in those whose job it is to serve and protect.