Saskatchewan serious incident investigators could alleviate oversight body’s workload: chair

Seven Canadian provinces have established civilian-led agencies to investigate incidents involving police officers that result in serious injury or death. Global News

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the third in a series of three stories by Global Regina this week examining the role of and challenges faced by Saskatchewan’s Public Complaints Commission as the government moves to modernize the existing policing oversight model in the province. Read parts 1 and 2

Adding a serious incident response team to Saskatchewan’s police oversight model could relieve some of the burden on the already stretched-thin Public Complaints Commission (PCC), chair Brent Cotter says.

The PCC is not mandated to specifically investigate the behaviour of municipal police officers that could potentially be criminal in nature, but ends up doing so “accidentally,” Cotter told Global News.

With no civilian-led agency assigned to investigate serious incidents involving police that result in serious injury or death, related complaints make their way to the PCC.

If the PCC’s work indicates the potential for criminal charges, it is obliged to refer the matter to the public prosecution.

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“We suspend our investigation until that process is concluded,” Cotter said. “It’s necessary for us to do that so that we’re not buzzing around doing a conduct investigation at the same time that the prosecutors are then trying to decide whether criminal charges should be laid.”

While Cotter said the process is fair based on the current system, “it drags out the time quite a bit” for the resource-strapped PCC, which has seen a 22 per cent increase in complaints over the past five years but no budget increase.

Click to play video: 'Saskatchewan police oversight body struggling to keep up with record-high number of complaints'
Saskatchewan police oversight body struggling to keep up with record-high number of complaints

If Saskatchewan had a serious incident response team, as seven other Canadian provinces already do, “they would handle the matter and we would not,” Cotter said.

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The Saskatchewan Ministry of Justice announced late last year that it was reviewing the province’s existing police oversight model.

In a statement to Global News, the ministry said it is considering what is being done in other jurisdictions and consulting with police. There is “no specific timeline” regarding an announcement on potential changes.

‘Drags out the time’

Lengthy PCC investigations, although many do not end up being criminal in nature, are frequent.

“The more serious ones that might lead to discipline also tend to be the most complicated,” Cotter said.

Brent Cotter is the Public Complaints Commission chair. Global News

For police chiefs, that presents additional layers of work as well.

Vice-president of the Saskatchewan Association of Chiefs of Police Rick Bourassa said chiefs often have to request an extension or multiple extensions of the six-month time period during which a PCC investigation is expected to conclude.

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Doing so allows the chiefs to maintain disciplinary jurisdiction over subject officers if recourse is required once the process concludes.

“The longer a complaint takes to move from the initial receipt to its conclusion, the more difficult it can become in terms of resources, in terms of processes that have to be followed,” Bourassa said.

Saskatchewan’s current oversight model has an additional burden on police when the legality of an officer’s action could be called into question in a serious incident. Generally, another police force is required to look into it.

While Bourassa is confident in the ability of police to investigate police, “it’s very resource-intensive,” he said.

“Police officers that are to be policing with any municipality are now in another municipality doing an investigation, which becomes a bit of a problem,” Bourassa said. “So we’re very confident in our ability to be objective in conducting these investigations, but we’re not as confident in our ability to have the resources to be able to do that.”

Saskatchewan playing catch-up

Both Bourassa and Cotter support adding a civilian-led agency assigned to investigate incidents involving officers that result in serious injury or death.

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While Ontario created its Special Investigations Unit (SIU) in 1990, a number of provinces from coast to coast have established civilian oversight agencies of their own over the past decade.

Citing waffling public confidence, Bourassa said “there is a desire that seems to be growing to have an independent investigative body.”

Cotter voiced a similar sentiment.

“I’ve been expressing a concern that Saskatchewan is becoming an outlier on that nationally and that that should be addressed,” Cotter said.

University of Toronto criminology PhD candidate Erick Laming, who focuses on police oversight, said each of the seven existing provincial serious incident investigative bodies is different.

“There isn’t one rule of thumb or there isn’t one design or one oversight agency that is better than another,” Laming said. “Each one has flaws, and some of them have many flaws.

“You have to start by just being as transparent as you can be to the public.”

Laming anticipates that adding serious incident investigators, which, in other provinces, all have independent annual budgets of upwards of $1 million, will alleviate some of the workload of the PCC, operating on about $650,000.

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The Public Complaints Commission’s most recent budget is at the level it was five years ago.

But in the beginning, there could be overlap, he said.

“There are going to be growing pains,” he said. “The first few years, it’s going to be very difficult.

“But Saskatchewan, if they are going to go ahead and do this, they have a lot of research, they have a lot of examples they can go off of.”

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