The Saskatchewan government is still working on establishing an independent oversight body to investigate serious incidents involving police officers, but it likely won’t be in place as early as officials initially hoped.
“To ensure that service levels could be maintained as much as possible across the justice system, the ministry has had to postpone work on previously planned initiatives,” said Noel Busse, executive director of communications for the Saskatchewan Ministry of Justice, in an email statement Tuesday.
Priorities had to be shifted to adapt to the changing and challenging circumstances presented by the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Busse, “and one of the things we had to shift our timelines on was the enhancements to police oversight.”
At the end of 2019, Justice Minister Don Morgan was looking ahead to 2020 and said: “It’s a matter of trying to get something in place in the relatively near future.”
Busse clarified the funding has been allocated in 2020-21 budget and that the plan is to move on it in the fiscal year.
“Things in government have been reprioritized to some degree with our addressing of the COVID pandemic,” Premier Scott Moe told reporters Tuesday.
“The independent civilian oversight of our police force is not something that is being shelved. It is something that is actively being looked at by our attorney general.”
Saskatchewan is one of the only province’s without an independent body to investigate serious incidents involving police officers that result in injury or death. An outside police force conducts the investigation and reports back to the Ministry of Justice.
It’s a system officials have acknowledged could be improved — and one with a gap that is highlighted in the current political climate, says Brent Cotter, chair of the civilian-led agency that deals with public complaints about encounters with police officers.
The death of George Floyd, a Black man, at the hands of a white Minneapolis police officer last week, was filmed and shared widely, sparking protests and riots throughout the United States and rallies in countries around the world, including Canada.
Hundreds of people gathered at the Saskatchewan legislature Tuesday in support of ending racism and police brutality.
While there is notably less police oversight in the United States than in Canada, “we don’t do that perfectly and I think it’s fair to say there are tensions with respect to police and minority communities in Canada,” Cotter said.
People are paying attention right now, he said.
“The idea is not that we have a bad system, but that there are a number of ways to make it better and this is one,” Cotter said.
“This might not be the exact time to fund it, but it certainly is the exact time to say in principle, really, this is where we need to go.”