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Policing the police: What powers do civilian bodies have in Canada?

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Policing the police: What powers do civilian bodies have in Canada?
Video of police chasing a suspect going the wrong way on an Ontario highway last month startled many Canadians. The province’s police watchdog is now investigating the incident, but the officers have declined to testify. They have the right to do so but it’s brought police oversight into focus. Global’s Nathaniel Dove reports looks at how those who wear the badge are held accountable – Jun 20, 2024

Correction: Alberta’s civilian police watchdog, the ASIRT, does not have the power to charge officers with crimes.

Footage last month showing Ontario police pursuing a suspect through oncoming traffic on a highway left many startled, and the chase ended in a crash that killed an infant and their grandparents.

Two of the officers involved are refusing to speak to the province’s police watchdog, which they have the right to do.

An advocate says it raises an important question: who polices the police?

It’s a question Margie Gray has asked since seven Vancouver police officers beat her son Myles so hard in 2015 they fractured his eye socket and rib and ruptured his testicles, according to the findings of a subsequent coroner’s inquest.

That inquest ruled his death was a homicide – though the ruling carries no legal finding of responsibility. An investigation by B.C.’s Independent Investigations Office (IIO) ultimately found reasonable grounds to believe police may have committed an offence during Myles’ arrest, and submitted a report to the BC Prosecution Service for consideration of charges.

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The seven have not faced criminal repercussions. Global News asked the Vancouver Police Department for an update but did not hear back.

“It has been nine years of bureaucratic processes that have (done) nothing but traumatized myself and my family,” Gray said.

Who holds police accountable?

The IIO, like other civilian oversight bodies agencies across Canada, is headed by a civilian and investigates police whenever an incident leads to the serious harm or death of a person.

If the IIO believes there is a reasonable ground that an offence occurred, it passes on recommendations to the office of the attorney general, which will then rely on Crown prosecutors to prosecute police.

But it does not have the power to charge police officers.

Ron MacDonald, the former head of the IIO, said the office resubmitted the recommendation late in 2023 after the inquiry’s findings. Before he retired in March, the Prosecution Service decided it would still not prosecute the officers.

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“I think that Mr. Gray’s case is one of those cases that suffered from what appears to be in this country, an issue with Crown (attorneys) approving charges from bodies such as the IIO,” he said.

Click to play video: 'Winnipeg police in need of independent police oversight council, advocates say'
Winnipeg police in need of independent police oversight council, advocates say

Even though the people in the IIO referring the charges are “almost exclusively, across this country, highly experienced lawyers,” MacDonald said, “there certainly does appear to be a disconnect between referrals and the numbers that are being approved when you compare it to regular charges.”

“I think that a format where the oversight agency has the right to lay the charge, with or without the Crown approval is the appropriate way to proceed,” he said, speaking from Antigonish, N.S.

“If an oversight body simply has recommendation power, then that goes nowhere in terms of actually changing the conduct and more importantly, the culture within certain police services,” lawyer Don Worme said from Saskatoon.

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Worme represented the family of Neil Stonechild, a 17-year-old Indigenous boy who died in 1990.

Click to play video: 'Saskatoon marks 30 years since Neil Stonechild’s death'
Saskatoon marks 30 years since Neil Stonechild’s death

The 2004 commission into his death found that two Saskatoon police officers were dispatched just before midnight on Nov. 24, 1990 to investigate a complaint about Stonechild and took him into custody.

Stonechild’s “frozen body” was found days later with injuries and marks “that were likely caused by handcuffs,” according to the report.

The Saskatoon police investigator “carried out a superficial and totally inadequate investigation of the death of Neil Stonechild,” it said.

The two officers who arrested Stonechild were later fired but have not faced criminal charges.

Worme said stronger police oversight at the time could have helped Stonechild’s family get answers years earlier.

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He said every police service needs civilian oversight with the ability to charge police, as well as Indigenous representation.

“Indigenous people in this country have not been served well by police services,” he said.

Which agencies can press charges?

The civilian oversight bodies in Alberta, Manitoba, Ontario and Nova Scotia have the authority to lay charges against police.

Others publish reports and send recommendations to another body, usually that province’s attorney general.

P.E.I.’s Police Commission’s regulations do not explicitly state they can press charges but do say a disciplinary authority can impose “disciplinary and corrective measures.”

Nova Scotia’s Serious Incident Response Team also investigates police in New Brunswick, while Alberta’s unit helps the Yukon.

Click to play video: 'Indigenous groups focus on First Nation policing after inquest'
Indigenous groups focus on First Nation policing after inquest

The RCMP polices the other territories.

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The Civilian Review and Complaints Commission for the RCMP (CRCC) independently oversees the federal police, though the commission’s site states the “public complaint process itself will not result in discipline, dismissal, or criminal charges against an RCMP member.”

It does say a public complaint “could prompt the RCMP to initiate a separate Code of Conduct or criminal investigation,” but the CRCC has no control over those.

The RCMP is accountable to the public safety minister.

Are police oversight agencies effective?

Ontario’s police watchdog, the Special Investigations Unit (SIU), is investigating the deadly highway pursuit.

“Would having the subject officers be involved in the interview and having their notes and everything (help the investigation)? Of course,” Trent University criminology professor Erick Laming said, because it would “probably enhance the investigation.”

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“But it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s going to minimize or damage the quality of the investigation.”

As of June 12, the SIU is completing interviews with 55 officials and civilians and has obtained more than 100 videos.

Laming said Canada is “far ahead of the game” when it comes to police accountability, because “we’re really one of the only nations who have this consistent kind of process across the country.”

“Oversight is a vital part of maintaining and enhancing public confidence in policing,” a spokesperson for the Canadian Police Association, a national organization of police officers, said in a statement.

“The reality is that police services and members don’t have the ability to pick and choose when they want to cooperate with these oversight bodies.”

Click to play video: 'Winnipeg police in need of independent police oversight council, advocates say'
Winnipeg police in need of independent police oversight council, advocates say

But Laming said whether having those accountability mechanisms “translates into actual accountability is a different story, because we have always had issues with our bodies.”

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Ontario’s SIU is the oldest in the country, founded in 1990. It takes time for a watchdog to build support and gather enough trained investigators, Laming said.

But even holding an inquiry into police conduct, he said, offers “some way of accountability, of getting to the truth of it all.”

“Whether that is an accountability that we want, it’s a different story.”

That’s not enough for Gray.

“There really isn’t any (police accountability,)” she said.

“The changes that need to happen are huge.”

—with files from Ryan Rocca, Kristen Robinson and The Canadian Press

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