'Totally unacceptable:' Most independent investigators white, former officers

The majority of independent investigators delving into alleged police misconduct in Canada are white men who are former police officers.

Seven provincial independent investigation units currently look into incidents involving police.

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The Canadian Press has found that of the 167 members involved in these units, 111 are former officers or have had a working relationship with police, and 118 of them are men.

Every province but British Columbia also provided the number of investigators in their units who identify as a visible minority or person of colour. There are 20.

"It's very, very biased," says Ghislain Picard, regional chief for the Assembly of First Nations in Quebec and Labrador. "How can you expect any trust from those cultural minorities and Indigenous Peoples?

"The interaction between the independent bureau and our communities it's practically non-existent."

Indigenous people don't have hope for justice when police investigate themselves, Picard adds, especially after what happened in Val d'Or, Que., more than 500 kilometres north of Montreal.

In 2015, there were 38 cases involving complaints by multiple women there against Sûreté du Québec officers. Some women claimed they were drugged and sexually assaulted. Montreal police investigated.

In the end, two retired police officers were charged. Both died before their cases finished in court.

At the time, some 2,500 police officers wore red bands while on duty to support their accused colleagues. First Nations members who testified during a commission said it was clearly an intimidation tactic.

In the wake of the scandal, Quebec's Bureau of Independent Investigations was created. Picard says creation of a largely white investigative unit made up of former officers has done nothing to repair the relationship.

More than half the unit's 44 investigators had previous police employment. Four are people of colour but none are Indigenous. It does have an Indigenous liaison.

"It's again the police investigating their own," Picard says. "That's totally unacceptable for many people. There is no faith, no trust coming from women."

The agency declined to comment on Picard's remarks.

The unit was recently tasked with investigating two recent police shootings of Indigenous people in New Brunswick, which doesn't have its own independent investigative unit.

Saskatchewan, Prince Edward Island, Yukon, Northwest Territories and Nunavut also don't have independent units and outside forces are generally called in to investigate cases there.

Independent units in Nova Scotia and Newfound and Labrador have no people of colour working as investigators. Manitoba has three of 11. Ontario has the most, with 9 of its 52 investigators.

Akwasi Owusu-Bempah, an assistant professor at the University of Toronto, says because investigative units are comprised largely of former officers, there is the perception of an allegiance to the policing world.

Officers also can bring systemic biases or racism that exist in law enforcement, he says.

The Alberta Serious Incident Response Team has permanent investigators, as well as seconded members from police forces. All 25 members are former law enforcement.

Susan Hughson, the executive director, said in an email "that experience is invaluable."

But Owusu-Bempah questions what independence there can be when active police officers are seconded to a unit. He says civilians should instead be educated and trained to work in these units.

"We've got issues related to trust and confidence in law enforcement in this country, especially amongst marginalized populations," he says.

Civil rights groups and families have also criticized a lack of charges, and even less convictions, stemming from investigations by independent units.

In Manitoba, there have been a handful of convictions against on-duty police officers since its unit began in 2015. The Independent Investigation Unit of Manitoba was created after criticism of a probe into an off-duty officer who drove into another vehicle after a night of partying, and killed a mother behind the wheel.

Christian Leuprecht, a professor at Queen's University and a member of the Kingston Police board, says he would caution against people assuming more women, Black or Indigenous people in these units would lead to different outcomes.

And in many cases, he says former officers have the best skills to investigate.

"I think we have yet to see a case where somebody challenged the findings of an independent investigation unit on the grounds that the findings were biased."

Black Lives Matter demonstrations have helped people see that the public has a role in deciding how police are funded and held accountable, Leuprecht adds. That includes independent investigative units.

"In a democracy, it's ultimately up to us to make decisions," he says.

"And if we don't like what's happening, it shouldn't be up to police to decide how to run things. It should be up to the public."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 19, 2020

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