[In the op-ed below, Andre Marin uses the word “oversight” to mean civilian investigation of police. The word is usually used differently in B.C., where the Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner is said to have “oversight.” But that’s limited to reviewing information the OPCC receives from police investigators. The OPCC doesn’t conduct investigations. An additional note: The OPCC’s “civilians” are almost all ex-cops.]


Manitoba’s great leap forward
on cops investigating cops
is a ‘baby step’

Andre Marin, Winnipeg Free Press, April 22, 2009


The good news is that the government of Manitoba has decided to create an Independent Investigations Unit to investigate deaths and serious injuries involving the police.

Unfortunately, that’s where the good news stops. The rest is a classic cop-out, so to speak. The proposed legislation means that it’s still the police investigating the police, with all the baggage that carries.

Although the head honcho cannot have been a police officer, the proposed legislation makes it pretty clear that all IIU investigators will be serving cops or ex-cops. Shockingly, many will be from the force under investigation. None will be civilians, though there is a “faint hope” clause in one of the consultation papers put out by the government that leaves the door open for civilians “who meet the standards under the Act.” That may just be an opening for retired officers. There will be a roster of “civilian monitors” whose role and function is not clear at all, but will most likely be relegated to mere tokenism.

Makes you wonder if IIU doesn’t really stand for police Issues Irrelevant Unit. Hasn’t anything been learned from Justice Salhany’s public inquiry?

Why is policing virtually the only profession left that claims you have to be (or have been) a member to investigate other members? You don’t have to be a lawyer to investigate lawyers, a doctor to investigate doctors or a politician to investigate a politician.

The answer is simple. Police special interest groups, including powerful unions, have succeeded in keeping themselves immune from independent oversight. The lessons learned from Taman, Harper and Dziekanski are ignored as police management and unions, normally at loggerheads, come together to fight the common enemy of effective civilian oversight, stampeding politicians in the process. The police lobby at times borders on the hysterical. It’s all about the police maintaining control. Time after time, incident after incident, public outcry after public outcry, they wheel out the same tired old red herrings in an attempt to convince the public that the sky will fall if civilians are allowed to investigate police.

Here they are, in no particular order:

Civilian oversight is too expensive:

Civilian units are a needless, wasteful layer of expensive bureaucracy, or so the naysayers claim. They forget one little thing — investigations cost money, whoever does them. Police investigating police doesn’t mean investigations are suddenly done for free. Perhaps the money currently spent on internal investigations that will fall under the new IIU’s mandate can be transferred directly to its budget. And just think about the huge costs of those public inquiries when it emerges, as it almost inevitably seems to do, that the cop-on-cop investigation is flawed. With one exception, Ontario hasn’t had a public inquiry into a police shooting since it established its independent Special Investigations Unit almost 20 years ago.

The director is a civilian — it doesn’t matter who does the grunt work:

Speaking as a former civilian head of Ontario’s SIU, I can attest that the quality of the director’s decision on a given case is only as good as the investigation done by the investigators. He or she relies in large part on the evidence that the investigators provide. If the investigation is shoddy, if it has a bias toward a fellow officer, if inconvenient truths are brushed under the carpet, if involved officers are treated with kid gloves, if difficult questions are avoided, if the focus of the investigation is on the victim, not the officer — then it doesn’t matter if you have King Solomon as the director; the conclusion will likely be flawed.

Civilians don’t have the skills to do these investigations:

This simply is not true. Ontario’s SIU and many other oversight agencies across the world have investigators with a purely civilian background. According to Gareth Jones, a former SIU investigator and London (U.K.) police officer who has conducted more investigations into death and serious injuries involving police than probably anyone else in the world, civilian investigators are just as good as — and sometimes much better — than police or ex-police investigators. Civilian investigators may “grow on trees,” but by the same token, they are not required to be rocket scientists. There is literally a smoking gun, at least in police shooting cases. The investigative process is relatively straightforward. Civilians become very proficient, very quickly, at conducting thorough and fair investigations.

Oversight will make front-line cops second-guess themselves:

Police unions raised this canard when the SIU was set up in Ontario. They argued that officers would hesitate to make split-second life-and-death decisions, because they knew they would be investigated by civilians. It hasn’t happened. Police in Ontario and other places with effective civilian oversight still do their jobs, using force appropriately in the overwhelming majority of cases.

Manitoba shouldn’t have an Ontario solution imposed on it:

Manitoba isn’t emulating Ontario. It is emulating a growing worldwide consensus that cops shouldn’t be investigating cops, especially in serious cases.

The proposed new Act, as it stands, is being billed as a great leap forward. In my view, it is a baby step. It is fatally flawed because it is still police investigating police. And the worst part of it all is the government “spin” about Manitoba taking the lead in police oversight. The police are still firmly in charge; the police puppeteer is just better hidden from public view.

Andre Marin, director of Ontario’s Special Investigations Unit from 1996-98,
is the Ombudsman of Ontario.

[On a related note, see Powerful police lobby likes cops investigating cops by Allen Garr in the Vancouver Courier.]

Back to News and Comment page