Police Oversight - Backgrounder

Police Oversight

The police play a very important role in Canadian society. With the powers that have been granted to them by the electorate, they investigate criminal activity and they enforce the laws that are created by the democratically elected members of Parliament and the Legislature. For many people, the image of the police officer is a comforting one; it is an image of the brave fellow-citizen who has put him or herself at potential risk in order to "serve and protect” the members of the community. At a recent meeting of the Canadian Association of Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement (CACOLE), participants agreed that, "Canadians in general and British Columbians in particular, are very fortunate to be so well-policed and that we enjoy police forces that are universally respected for their competence and professionalism.”[1]These words are not to suggest, however, that the system in which we live is above reproach.

Indeed, not all people share this image of law enforcement and, even amongst those who do, it is known that not all police officers always live by the same laws that they are charged with upholding. In recent years, and throughout history, there have been many stories and allegations of abuses committed by police officers in Canada. Given the breadth of the powers that are entrusted to the police, the question of police oversight is a particularly important one.

Specific Example of Recent Alleged Police Misconduct
The year is 2005. A twenty-two year old man is caught drinking beer outside a hockey arena in Houston, B.C. After giving the R.C.M.P. a false name, he is put in the back of a police car and taken to the police station. Twenty minutes later, Ian Bush lies on the floor, dead, having been shot in the back of the head.

It's a cold January night. Three suspected drug dealers with lengthy criminal records are removed from the Granville Street Mall area in Vancouver, BC. The police take them to Stanley Park where, one by one, they are taken out of the police vehicle and beaten.

One night, a young aboriginal man is taken on a "starlight tour”, which is to say that he is driven to the outskirts of Saskatoon by two police officers and abandoned in the sub-zero temperatures of the Saskatchewan night. The chief of police admits that this is not an isolated incident. [2]Over the years, several aboriginal men are found frozen to death on the outskirts of town. A similar incident occurs in Merritt, British Columbia when an aboriginal man is beaten by police and left in the bush. [3] He survives.

Two off-duty R.C.M.P. officers leave a lower-mainland bar one night, highly intoxicated. The two officers proceeded to assault three men and to falsely identify themselves as Port Coquitlam Police and as undercover police agents.

Who is affected by police misconduct?
While police misconduct can negatively and directly affect any member of society, it is not true that everyone has the same likelihood of being affected. It has been documented that police misconduct of the violent sort disproportionately targets aboriginal people, people from marginalized ethnic communities and/or people living on low-incomes. [4]

Policing and Oversight in British Columbia
The provision of policing services in British Columbia is delivered by: 1) municipal police forces, 2) tribal police forces, and 3) the RCMP. When a complaint is lodged against a member of a police force or the force itself, the process employed to investigate and resolve the complaint is monitored by one of two institutions that provide civilian oversight in the province. Municipal and some tribal police forces are subject to the oversight of the Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner while concerns about the conduct of the RCMP are directed to the Commission for Public Complaints Against the RCMP.

Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner (OPCC)
The Police Complaint Commission is an independent civilian organization that is accountable to the Legislature of British Columbia. It is responsible for overseeing 15 municipal and tribal police forces such as the Nelson City Police Department, the Vancouver Police Department, Stl"atl'imx Tribal Police Services, and the Victoria Police Department.

The Commissioner has a number of duties. Among these are: overseeing the complaints process regarding municipal/tribal police forces, their policies, and their officers; receiving and tracking complaints; compiling data regarding lodged complaints, and; regular reporting to the public regarding complaints and the complaint process.

In order to fulfill these duties, she or he may takes such steps as researching and issuing recommendations on any aspect of the police complaints process, recommending a public inquiry, or suggesting to Crown Counsel that criminal charges be laid against a police officer.

Any individual can lodge a complaint in person, by fax, by phone, by email or by mail to the OPCC. Alternatively, they can lodge the complaint at any municipal police department information desk. While this initial report may be made in any of these forms, a complainant ultimately needs to fill out a Form 1 Record of Complaint. If the form is received by the OPCC, the complaint is forwarded to the Chief Constable of the department that is, or whose member is, the object of the complaint. Similarly, if the complaint is made at a police department, the Form 1 is forwarded to the OPCC. Any investigation should be completed within six months of this time.

There are three types of complaints under the Police Act: service or policy complaints, internal discipline complaints, and public trust complaints. Complaints about the service of a department or its policies are addressed by the local police board, who must report findings and a summary of any action taken to the OPCC. When there is an allegation against an officer that does not affect the relationship between the police and the public, it is deemed an internal discipline matter and is addressed accordingly.

A public trust complaint can be resolved in one of three ways: summary dismissal, informal resolution, or an investigation. The Chief Constable of the police department where the complaint originates can summarily dismiss the complaint where it is deemed baseless or where it was filed more than a year after the incident that forms the basis of the complaint. Where a complaint is dismissed, the decision to do so may be reviewed by the OPCC. It is also possible for the complainant and respondent to come to an informal resolution and to settle the complaint by signing a letter of agreement. Finally, a complaint may be investigated through an internal investigation or, in some rare cases, by an external investigator.

Policing is subject to the oversight of the courts and any criminal activity will be addressed in that arena. In the context of the OPCC work, any disciplinary action will be in relation to the employment of the officer(s) whose conduct is being questioned. Such discipline may include a written reprimand, a suspension, a reduction in rank, or a dismissal. If this investigation does not lead to satisfactory resolution for the complainant, they can apply to the OPCC to recommend a public hearing. This decision may also be made by the OPCC without having received an application.

In 2006, the OPCC received nearly 600 complaint forms, 85% of which included public trust complaints. That same year, just over 1000 complaints were concluded. Of those, 59 were withdrawn, 211 were summarily dismissed, 618 were found to be unsubstantiated, and 54 were substantiated. The majority of the rest were concluded through informal resolution. [5]

There are limitations to the work that the OPCC can do. One of the most often-mentioned limitations is in relation to the investigation process. The practice of internally investigating complaints raises concerns in two key regards. First, there is the concern that there will be a perception of bias in having people investigate members of their own police force. Public confidence in the police is important and that confidence will waiver where there does not appear to be any accountability. Second, it has been suggested that, in fact, internal investigations do not always lead to complete and fair investigations. In a recent review of the police complaints process, former B.C. Court of Appeal justice Josiah Wood QC recommended greater powers for the OPCC to investigate and to monitor internal investigations. In his study, the former justice found that, while 80% of investigations were adequately carried out, the one in five that aren"t adequately done were generally in regard to the more serious breaches of the public trust. [6] Whether the government decides to adopt the recommendations of this report waits to be seen.

The Commission for Public Complaints Against the R.C.M.P.
The Commission for Public Complaints Against the RCMP (CPC) provides a similar service with respect to the RCMP as that provided by the OPCC with respect to municipal police forces. Like the OPCC, the CPC is a product of a statute passed by an elected body and is responsible to that body (the Parliament in this case). The CPC oversees all RCMP policing activity but does not have any power in regard to the RCMP national security powers. The National Security activities of the RCMP are not subject to civilian oversight of any kind. Whether this lack of oversight is appropriate in a free and democratic society is the topic of a great deal of debate.

The complaint process at the CPC is similar to that found at the OPCC. Once a complaint is received, the RCMP conducts an internal investigation and reports to the complainant. There may also be a process of mediation in an effort to reach an informal resolution of the complaint. If the complainant is satisfied with the RCMP report, the process ends and the complaint is closed. If the complainant is unsatisfied, a complainant can request a review by the CPC. Upon review, if the Chair of the CPC finds that the report is satisfactory, the process ends. If, however, the Chair is unsatisfied, they may take a number of steps including: conducting a review of the complaint without any further investigation; requesting that the RCMP investigate further, initiating an investigation on behalf of the CPC, and holding a public hearing. During a review, an interim report will be prepared by the CPC and sent to the RCMP Commissioner. Ultimately, once the process is at an end, a final report is sent to the RCMP Commissioner, the Minister of Public Safety and the complainant. None of the reports prepared by the CPC are binding on the RCMP.

In order to place into check the vast powers granted to the police, and in order to maintain public confidence in the police, it is important that there is civilian oversight of the individual officers and of the departments. In British Columbia, the OPCC and the CPC provide that service. In both the context of municipal and federal policing, it has recently been noted that the majority of internal investigations are conducted in a fair and just manner. However, there are also those that are not seen to lead to a just result. What balance should be struck to ensure the adequacy of civilian oversight? Should recommendations be binding on the police? Does this undermine the authority of a police chief? Should internal investigations ever be permitted? These and other questions will continue to be debated until that balance is reached.

Useful Links
The Commission for Public Complaints Against the RCMP

The British Columbia Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner

B.C. Civil Liberties Association

Military Complaints Commission of Canada

Pivot Legal

Canadian Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement

RCMP Watch

Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner, Annual Report (Victoria: 2006), at 8, online: http://www.opcc.bc.ca/publications/docs/Annual_Report_2006.pdf

 “Who Was Neil Stonechild?” CBC (3 November 2021), online: CBC http://www.cbc.ca/news/background/stonechild/.

Petti Fong, “Merritt RCMP Officer Charged With Assault” The Globe and Mail (11 February 2021), online: RCMP Watch http://www.rcmpwatch.com/merritt-rcmp-officer-charged-with-assault/.

T. Howard et al. To Serve and Protect: A Report on Policing in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside (2002) [unpublished] at 3, online: PIVOT Legal http://www.pivotlegal.org/pdfs/toserveandprotect.pdf.

OPCC Annual Report, supra note 1 at 37.

Josiah Wood QC, Report on the Review of Police Complaints Process in BC, February 2007 http://www.pssg.gov.bc.ca/police_services/publications/index.htm