In the wake of news that senior RNC officers are under criminal investigation by the Nova Scotia Serious Incident Response Team (SIRT), Justice and Public Safety Minister Andrew Parsons says he wants to beef up civilian oversight of police in the province.
In an interview with The Telegram, Parsons said he has directed officials to look at how other jurisdictions oversee police, and set up something akin to the Nova Scotia SIRT.
Police oversight is an area in which Newfoundland and Labrador lags behind most of the country, according to Alok Mukherjee, distinguished visiting professor of criminology at Ryerson University and former chair of the Toronto police services board.
Most jurisdictions have a civilian board — like the board of directors of a company — that oversees police services.
Many provinces also have independent civilian-led investigation units like SIRT that take over when police officers are accused of serious crimes.
“Newfoundland and Quebec are the two exceptions,” Mukherjee said. “Those are the two that do not have independent oversight of policing, and I think the consequence of that is that on the one hand, the public remains skeptical. (And) on the other hand every serious concern about police conduct gets politicized because it’s then the minister who is called on to answer for it.”
There has been a raft of high-profile cases in the past year that have stirred up public concern and criticism of police conduct, and each case has been treated differently.
Out-of-province investigators from SIRT have been called in to investigate allegations that the RNC mishandled a criminal informant.
On the other hand, in the case where an RNC officer shot and killed a man named Don Dunphy, the neighbouring RCMP detachment is investigating.
And in another case in Corner Brook, an RNC officer was investigated for possible criminal activity by other RNC officers, and then after the province’s director of public prosecutions said there were deficiencies in the investigation, the RNC called in the Ontario Provincial Police.
St. John’s criminal defence lawyer Erin Breen says the government’s current approach to serious accusations against police officers is “a dog’s breakfast” with no clear protocols for who is supposed to investigate in which circumstances.
Breen represents the daughter of Dunphy, and has raised concerns in the past that the RCMP is not conducting an unbiased investigation.
She said she is happy to hear Parsons is looking at some sort of civilian oversight for the police.
Parsons said that by instituting some sort of independent, civilian-led body that would investigate serious allegations against police, the province could clarify exactly what sorts of crimes it would handle, and who would be responsible for the other cases.
He said this is all about maintaining public confidence in the justice system.
“I think it’s of the utmost importance that there be transparency when it comes to the administration of justice in this province,” he said. “This is why we think we need to have this in this province. It’s just about figuring out which way you go about it.”
Parsons also said it’s not something he has considered before, but he would be willing to consider some sort of civilian police services board that would oversee the police.
“Look, am I willing to look at it? Why not?” he said.
“I’m definitely, definitely not opposed to it.”
Last week, RNC Chief Bill Janes told The Telegram that the police have civilian oversight already, insofar as the RNC Public Complaints Commission exists.
“The call for civilian oversight, I guess, to some degree that exists through the public complaints commission,” Janes said. “There is separate civilian oversight there, but there are other entities and different models in different provinces as well, and I’m an open-minded person. If somebody were to show me something, then based on the merits of it, I’d be willing to look at it.”
The RNC Public Complaints Commission investigates conduct only in very narrow circumstances. It defers to the courts on any criminal accusations against an officer, and a complaint needs to be made within six months of a police officer allegedly doing something inappropriate.
And in most cases, the complaints are handled confidentially, without any public disclosure.
“The name is a little bit misleading, because people think, well, it’s public. But actually, unless we go to a public hearing, it’s the opposite, it’s confidential,” said retired judge John Rorke, who heads the complaints commission.
Asked whether the commission provides sufficient oversight of the RNC, Rorke demurred.
“That’s not for me to say. I can only follow the rules and the regulations that exist, and whether or not it’s adequate wouldn’t be appropriate for me to say,” he said.
The public complaints commission hasn’t issued a decision from a public hearing since March 2014.