August 13, 2009
THE public has known for a long time that police officers should not be allowed to investigate themselves. Any doubts should have been removed following the Taman Inquiry in Manitoba, and the inquiry into the Taser-related death of Robert Dziekanski at the hands of the RCMP in Vancouver.
The two cases were fundamentally different, except in this respect: In both cases, the investigations by police into the conduct of police were flawed and below the standards that would normally be followed in incidents involving civilians. They tended to reinforce the cynical view that there's a law for the police and a law for everyone else.
In the Dzienkanski case, the rot in the RCMP's ability to investigate itself was exposed from top to bottom, but none of the lies and the half-truths would have come to light without a multi-million dollar inquiry. The same was true of the Taman probe, which revealed beyond doubt that police officers naturally, perhaps instinctively, treat their own with a sympathy and deference that impairs their ability to conduct impartial probes.
The latest salvo in the assault on the ability of police to self-regulate was launched this week with the release of a report by the Commission for Public Complaints Against the RCMP, which concluded that the force's "approach to investigations of its own members is flawed and inconsistent."
The CPC analyzed 28 internal RCMP investigations and discovered a high level of inappropriate conduct, including cases where the primary investigators personally knew the subject member, or where a lone investigator was required to handle the case. There were also too many cases involving investigators who weren't qualified, or where the officer being investigated was senior in rank to the investigator.
The RCMP has responded that it will consider these recommendations in the future, but there is really no reason why they can't be done now, at least until a more comprehensive system for conducting internal probes is developed.
It's true that RCMP detachments are spread across some of the country's most remote and inaccessible areas, but geography does not prevent the force from conducting serious crime investigations now. In the event of a murder or serious assault, forensic experts and specialists are flown to the crime scene on an emergency basis. The RCMP merely needs to treat serious allegations against its members in the same way. If that means flying in two senior officers to ensure that a complaint is properly investigated, then so be it.
The CPC falls short in several of its recommendations. It suggests, for example, that all internal probes involving death, serious injury or sexual assault be referred to an external police force or provincial criminal investigation body.
The problem with this recommendation is that it does not resolve the question of public trust. Police investigating police, even if they do not know the subject officers personally, is no longer acceptable. It's a lesson, unfortunately, that has not been learned by the Manitoba government, which is working on legislation to create an investigative body for municipal police forces. (The RCMP in this province has indicated they might submit to its jurisdiction once they see how it will work.)
The province has decided it will use police officers to conduct investigations into allegations of wrongdoing on the specious grounds that they are the only investigators capable of conducting criminal probes. The Ontario Special Investigations Unit employs a mix of police officer and civilian investigators, but it is committed as a matter of principle to using civilians only. These investigations do not involve finding a killer, but merely uncovering what happened. They do not involve undercover work or hanging out in nightclubs, and they are jobs that many people could do with proper training.
The federal government is reviewing the question of how RCMP officers investigate themselves. It should take its cue from Ontario, which understands the importance of assuring the public that police are never above the law. In the meantime, the RCMP should embrace the CPC's recommendations and implement those ideas than can be done today.
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