Earlier this week, the government of Saskatchewan unveiled a police reform bill that aims to improve public oversight into custody deaths and injuries, but it doesn’t address the province’s need for an independent watchdog.
Proponents of public police oversight are now saying the bill doesn’t go far enough in addressing the needs of the people.
“We see now from news stories around the world that trust in policing is being challenged, as it should be,” said Rick Bourassa, VP of the Saskatchewan Association of Chiefs of Police.
“That’s what happens in good deliberative democracy, and we should be accountable to the people that we police.”
On Wednesday, Minister of Justice Don Morgan tabled the Police Amendment 2020 Act which would give civilians the opportunity to oversee investigations, but keeps them from conducting the investigation.
“Right now, the existing program what it lacks is: good optics, good transparency and they don’t have an obligation to report,” Morgan said.
If passed, the bill would give the Provincial Complaints Commission — the province’s civilian oversight body — the power to appoint an overseer for investigations.
However, despite the proposed changes — which the government says is a step toward transparency and accountability — the province’s legislation lags behind other jurisdictions in Canada as police would still be investigating police.
Saskatchewan remains one of three provinces in the country that does not have an independent investigative unit to look into police custody injuries and death.
“We think that a province the size of ours, and with the number of police forces that we have, to try and have a model like they do in Ontario or Alberta is expensive, costly, and it becomes a matter of creating another police force so it’s police investigating police at a different level,” Morgan said.
However, provinces similar in population size to Saskatchewan — Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Labrador and Manitoba — have their own independent investigators.
“We’re at a moment right now where the community is reminding us that all lives won’t matter until Black lives matter and that First Nations and Metis lives matter, and this is all a problem of justice,” said Scott Thompson, assistant professor in sociology at the University of Saskatchewan.
“To then hear the government come out with these changes, and particularly say we’re going to make these changes and not other changes to solve the problem — simply because of cost — feels like they’re not prioritizing justice for everyone.”
But it’s not just the public calling for an independent civilian-led agency to investigate police conduct.
The Saskatoon Board of Police Commissioners recently passed a motion that calls on the province for an Independent Serious Incident Response Team.
Bourassa is also calling for more transparency so that “trust in the public can be maintained.”
“The police are the public, the public are the police. We need to earn the respect of our communities, we need to have the consent of our communities to police them, and flowing from that is an oversight model where we are answerable to non-police,” Bourassa said.
The Public Complaints Commission is also advocating for a public watchdog.
“An independent investigative agency provides that greater confidence in the oversight of the police and their accountability, so I would have hoped that we would have moved in that direction,” said Brent Cotter, chair of the Public Complaints Commission.
Cotter says an independent agency would cost the province $1 million annually.
“I would have thought that this was a moment in time when rebuilding public confidence in oversight of the police and ultimately rebuilding and assuring the public confidence in the police was a valuable thing to do.”
Even with the reform bill, and calls for an independent oversight body, police will continue to investigate police in the province.
“I don’t think it matters who is doing the day-to-day investigation,” Morgan said. “I think it matters who is responsible for it, who reports it, and who is the one who signs off on it when it’s over.”
But for many in the province, it does matter.
“To have those communities tell us that this is something they want and need, and then to come back and tell them we’re not going to prioritize that,” Thompson said. “This touches on the exact issue that they’re protesting. They don’t feel like they’re being prioritized or that their lives matter.”
— With files from Colton Praill.