Quebec’s agency dedicated to investigating cases of serious injury or death of civilians by police was born in 2016 and modelled on Ontario’s now 30-year-old Special Investigations Unit. It didn’t take long for Quebec advocates to find Le Bureau des enquêtes indépendantes (BEI) wanting for independence, transparency and swift justice – criticism that plagues many police watchdogs.
The BEI has sent agents to New Brunswick to investigate the RCMP shooting of Rodney Levi at the Metepenagiag Mi’kmaq First Nation and the Edmundston Police shooting of Chantel Moore, originally from the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation in B.C. The Quebec watchdog was called in because New Brunswick doesn’t have its own police oversight agency.
The investigations are taking place while policing in Canada and the United States is under a microscope over a number of killings and other police brutality. Last week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said there was systemic racism in the RCMP, with the national police force’s commissioner first denying that was true and then acknowledging it was a problem.
The New Brunswick cases are the first outside Quebec for the BEI. It has conducted 167 investigations in Quebec where it was called in by a police department after serious injury or death of a civilian, such as in the New Brunswick cases. Prosecutors have so far never laid charges in those cases. The BEI tracks and summarizes cases and prosecutors have sometimes explained why charges were not laid.
In 2018, Quebec expanded the BEI’s mandate to investigate sexual-assault complaints from individuals against police along with any complaint against police by Indigenous peoples. The BEI has conducted 61 criminal investigations as a result of individual complaints; prosecutors have laid charges five times. It does not publicly disclose details on cases triggered by citizen complaints citing privacy and the right to a fair trial. News organizations have uncovered details on three of the cases, each involving sexual-assault charges against police officers.
About 60 per cent of the BEI’s employees are former police force employees, according to the watchdog group Ligue des droits et libertés. The BEI’s annual report for 2019 lists one part-time staff member who is an Indigenous person and it says it has are no other members of visible or ethnic minorities among 51 employees. Police investigating police and lack of diverse community representation are warning signs for bias and conflict of interest, according to Balarama Holness, founder of Montreal in Action, a human-rights advocacy group.
“Police act with impunity. They’re really exempt from punishment. It takes a micro-revolt for police officers to be tried in a fair manner,” Mr. Holness said. “Former police officers should not be judging the cases of police officers.”
Massimiliano Mulone, a criminologist at the University of Montreal, says the BEI is too new to be able to evaluate its effectiveness. “We don’t know yet. There’s certainly no consensus, but then there’s not consensus on the effectiveness of police oversight agencies anywhere in the world,” he said. “There aren’t many results yet, but the BEI does correspond with accepted practices.”
Dr. Mulone said he is launching a research project on independence at the BEI, but the issue usually revolves around a tug-of-war between advocates who want pure civilian oversight and police who complain they are under too much surveillance. “It’s complex,” he said. “It’s true few professions are watched as closely, but there aren’t many that carry guns either.”
Dr. Mulone gives the BEI relatively good marks for transparency. “We have a good idea what they do, but there is a lot of criticism, especially among police, for the lengthy amount of time they take to conclude investigations,” he said. “What we don’t know if these are growing pains or a structural problem.”
The Ligue des droits et libertés rights-advocacy group disputes that the BEI is transparent. With no trials, families of people who died from police violence are usually left with cursory summaries of secret BEI reports and little understanding of events, according to the group’s spokesperson Elisabeth Dupuis.
New Brunswick authorities have promised to release the full BEI report into Ms. Moore’s death. “This never happens in Quebec,” Ms. Dupuis said. It is not yet clear what will happen with the report into Mr. Levi’s death.
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