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For most of Canadian history, when the police were accused of wrongdoing, the police would be called in to investigate. In 1988, after two Black people were shot to death by police in the Toronto area, Ontario established a task force on race and policing. It called for outside oversight, and in 1990 the independent, civilian-led Special Investigations Unit was established, the first of its kind in Canada.

Today, there are 20 civilian-led police oversight bodies across Canada, with varying degrees of power, purview and effectiveness. It’s better than cops policing cops, but the system is not without its problems.

The first problem is ensuring that civilian oversight is truly civilian.

By one recent count, two-thirds of staff at Canada’s police oversight bodies are ex-officers. That raises questions about conflicts of interest, which risks undermining public confidence.

Some organizations are doing better than others. At the SIU, only one of 13 lead investigators is a former police officer. In contrast, at British Columbia’s Independent Investigations Office, as of 2017, half of its investigators were former officers. The stated goal is to get that number to zero, but there’s no plan to get there. In Alberta, every single one of the 22 investigators on the province’s Serious Incident Response Team, as of 2018, was a current or former cop.

Trained police officers have the necessary skills for the job, namely experience investigating crimes and allegations of wrongdoing. But that experience brings with it the risk of conflict of interest or, at a minimum, the appearance of it. To maintain public confidence, Canada’s oversight bodies need to train and hire more investigators not connected with the police.

A second key issue is that, beyond serious crimes and injuries, police investigating police remains Canada’s de facto system, even with civilian oversight. For example, if a person has a complaint about the conduct of an RCMP officer, they go to the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission. The commission’s first step in a review is to send the complaint back to the RCMP for assessment and investigation. This system, which at the very least gives the appearance of favouring police, is typical of how lower-level complaints are handled.

Does it make sense to refer an allegation of misconduct against the police back to the police? It’s not a great look, and it tends to undermine public confidence.

Other challenges for civilian oversight bodies include a lack of funding, limited powers – the RCMP watchdog can only make recommendations – and a lack of public disclosure and data. On that last point, one helpful solution would be to create a federal database to chronicle the use of force by police across the country.

In 2019, the SIU closed 363 cases, and laid charges in just 13. B.C.‘s IIO has a similar record. Of 127 investigations in 2018-19, it referred three cases for potential charges to the Crown.

The low number of charges is not necessarily a problem. The SIU, for example, must investigate all cases of serious injury involving the police, even when no wrongdoing is alleged. It may be that the decision in every one of the almost 500 cases above was appropriate, reflecting the law and the facts of each unique incident.

But even if that’s so, it’s still not enough. The public can’t judge the outcome; it can only judge the process. As such the public must have confidence that each and every decision to lay charges, or not, was the result of a truly independent assessment. The same concerns arise with how other complaints against police are handled, if they are resolved through an opaque and internal police process.

For justice to be done, and for the public to believe that it is being done, it has to be seen to have been done impartially.

Civilian oversight remains essential, and Canada has a foundation on which to improve it, but reform efforts have been halting. A recent review in Ontario led to changes that later were watered down. In Ottawa, a bill to open the Canada Border Services Agency to civilian review died last year, but is now back before Parliament.

If a person is hurt in an interaction with police, or when someone alleges that they have been otherwise wronged by a police officer, the case must be fully investigated by an independent body. Anything less and public confidence is undermined.

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