Adam Palmer, president of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, said he would welcome civilian oversight bodies for incidents of death or serious harm in jurisdictions that don’t have them yet, in a July 3, 2020 story. (Photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Adam Palmer, president of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, said he would welcome civilian oversight bodies for incidents of death or serious harm in jurisdictions that don’t have them yet, in a July 3, 2020 story. (Photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Provincial watchdog probes often don’t lead to charges against police

Civilian oversight agencies are relatively new

An analysis of data from civilian police watchdogs in Canada shows that most of their investigations do not result in charges against officers.

Charges were laid or forwarded to Crown prosecutors for consideration in three to nine per cent of the cases opened by the provincial agencies, a review by The Canadian Press of their most recent annual reports largely covering 2018 and 2019 found.

Seven provinces have independent police oversight agencies that probe cases of death and serious injury that could be the result of police action or inaction, however, the data was incomplete for some units.

Erick Laming, a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto who studies police use of force and its impacts on Indigenous and Black communities, said the numbers can be interpreted in two ways.

They may be taken to mean that watchdogs cast wide nets in their investigations and officers in most cases were justified in their use of force. But they can also be seen as evidence that the agencies are toothless against a legal system that makes it difficult to prosecute officers, he said.

Under the Criminal Code, a police officer is justified in using force in a lawful arrest as long as the officer acts on “reasonable and probable grounds and uses only as much force as reasonably necessary in the circumstances.”

If they fear for their life or someone else’s and that fear is deemed reasonable, they are typically cleared, he said.

“They have a very long rope when you think about it,” Laming said.

Civilian oversight agencies are relatively new. Apart from 30-year-old Ontario’s Special Investigations Unit, which closed 416 cases and charged officers in 15 of them in 2018, most have been introduced in the past decade.

They’re a welcome addition to police oversight, given that the alternative sees police or watchdogs from outside jurisdictions conduct investigations, Laming said.

“When you have another police service going in to investigate that has no connection to that area, it’s problematic,” he said.

But the agencies aren’t perfect, Laming said. They typically have a high threshold for defining “serious injury” so anything that doesn’t end in hospitalization is excluded from an investigation, he said.

The use of former police officers as investigators is also seen by some as a built-in bias, while Laming said they should strive to include more Indigenous, Black and other investigators of colour.

A Canadian Press review found that of the 167 members involved in these units, 111 are former police officers.

And only some of the agencies are empowered to lay charges themselves, while others can only share the results of their investigations with the Crown, Laming said.

Felix Cacchione, director of Nova Scotia’s Serious Incident Response Team, said officers are expected to use a “continuum of force” when responding to a call.

“The first part of that continuum is trying to reason with the person, calm them down, diffuse the situation verbally and then it progresses from there,” he said.

Cacchione’s team recorded the highest rate of charges among the provincial units, with four charges laid in 44 cases opened in 2018-19. The charges represent nine per cent of all cases opened that year — although charges were laid in 22 per cent of the cases that resulted in investigations.

“If a peace officer or a person assisting a peace officer is in a situation that poses a threat of grievous bodily harm, then that peace officer or person assisting can use as much force as necessary to prevent the threat from being a reality,” he said.

If an officer enters an empty church and there’s a person 12 metres away “ranting and raving” with a knife, that’s not enough to justify the use of force, said Cacchione. If the person is two metres away with a butcher’s knife, that’s considered a real threat, he said.

Cacchione worked as a criminal defence lawyer for decades before taking the job at the civilian agency in 2018. He said he was shocked to learn police training involves aiming for the centre body mass of someone posing a threat.

“Whenever I would hear someone being shot six, seven, eight, nine times by a police officer, I would think, well what’s going on, this is excessive. Why didn’t they shoot the person in the knee or the arm?”

He said he learned officers are trained that way because they’re likely to miss an arm or a leg. Cacchione recalled watching an instructor with a timer order an officer to shoot the centre body mass three times, then the head twice on the count of three.

“That takes just 2.4 seconds,” he said.

Based on what he’s learned, Cacchione said he believes there should be a greater involvement of mental health workers where possible, although there’s not always time in dynamic situations.

Adam Palmer, president of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, said there are many levels of oversight in Canada, ranging from police boards for municipal forces to complaint commissioners and other bodies.

He would welcome the introduction of civilian oversight bodies for incidents of death or serious harm in jurisdictions that don’t have them yet, he said.

“I’m definitely in favour of it,” said Palmer, who is also chief constable of the Vancouver Police Department.

Data from the Independent Investigations Office of B.C. shows Palmer’s police department was investigated 30 times last year, a large number relative to other forces in B.C. The next highest source of complaints was the RCMP’s Surrey and Prince George detachments, with six investigations each.

Although Vancouver with a population of 630,000 is marginally larger than Surrey at 520,000, Palmer attributed the high number of incidents to Vancouver’s role as a hub city that is a destination for people from across the region, rather than training or officer conduct.

In the vast majority of cases, officers were not charged and Palmer said that shows they operated legally.

Nobody wants to see anyone injured during an interaction with police, but it’s unrealistic to expect that’s entirely avoidable, he said.

“Sometimes to get in there and save somebody’s life or assist someone in need you will need to use physical force,” he said. “Not every case will be de-escalated.”

Harsha Walia, executive director of the BC Civil Liberties Association, said oversight of the police wouldn’t need to be reviewed if there was a broader shift to reduce the scope and scale of the departments, including the removal of mental-health calls from their mandate.

“It’s clear we need other solutions,” she added.

When officers are involved in a violent incident, they should be held to a higher standard than other citizens, said Walia.

“There have to be different standards in place based on the power dynamic,” she said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 3, 2020.

Police

Just Posted

(File photo from The Canadian Press)
Red Deer down to 66 active COVID-19 cases

Red Deer has lowest number of active cases since last November

Orange shirts, shoes, flowers and messages are displayed on the steps outside the legislature in Victoria, B.C., on Tuesday, June 8, 2021 following a ceremony hosted by the Songhees and Esquimalt First Nations in honour of the 215 residential school children whose remains have been discovered buried near the facility in Kamloops, B.C. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
Alberta city cancels Canada Day fireworks at site of former residential school

City of St. Albert says that the are where the display was planned, is the site of the former Youville Residential School

FILE – Perry Bellegarde, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, takes part in an event on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, July 7, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Indigenous Peoples Day must be a ‘call to action’, says Assembly of First Nations chief

Discovery of children at Kamloops residential school site must lead to change, Perry Bellegarde says

The Government of Alberta identified 115 new COVID-19 cases Sunday, bringing the provincial total to 3,089.
(Black Press file photo)
Alberta reports 100 new cases of COVID-19

The Central zone sits at 218 active cases

The Government of Alberta identified 115 new COVID-19 cases Sunday, bringing the provincial total to 3,089.
(Black Press file photo)
Red Deer drops to 71 active cases of COVID-19

Province adds 127 new cases of the virus

The border crossing into the United States is seen during the COVID-19 pandemic in Lacolle, Que. on February 12, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson
VIDEO: Border quarantine to soon lift for fully vaccinated Canadians

Eligible travellers must still take multiple COVID-19 tests

FILE - In this Nov. 29, 2020, file photo, Las Vegas Raiders defensive end Carl Nassib leaves the field after an NFL football game against the Atlanta Falcons in Atlanta. Nassib on Monday, June 21, 2021, became the first active NFL player to come out as gay. Nassib announced the news on Instagram, saying he was not doing it for the attention but because “I just think that representation and visibility are so important.” (AP Photo/John Bazemore, File)
Nassib becomes first active NFL player to come out as gay

More than a dozen NFL players have come out as gay after their careers were over

A pair of Alberta residents were arrested after police responded to a report of a woman who had allegedly been assaulted and confined against her will on June 20, 2021. (File photo)
Salmon Arm RCMP arrest 2 Albertans suspected in alleged assault, unlawful confinement

Firearms, stolen items seized including NHL hockey cards believed to be worth thousands

A man makes his way past signage to a mass COVID-19 vaccination centre at the University of Toronto’s Mississauga campus during the COVID-19 pandemic in Mississauga, Ont., on Monday, May 17, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Canadians encouraged to see mRNA shots as interchangeable as more 2nd doses open up

Doctors urge people not to hesitate if offered Moderna after getting Pfizer for their first shot

Chief of Defence Staff Jonathan Vance sits in the front row during a news conference in Ottawa on June 26, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Defence committee rises without report on Vance allegations

Committee had been investigating the government’s handling of complaints against former defence chief

Tl’etinqox-lead ceremony at the site of the former St. Joseph’s Mission in Williams Lake, B.C., June 18, 2021. (Angie Mindus photo - Williams Lake Tribune)
‘We are all one people’: Honouring residential school victims and survivors

Love, support and curiousity: Canadians urged to learn about residential schools and their impact

Indigenous rights and climate activists gathered outside Liberty Mutual’s office in Vancouver to pressure the insurance giant to stop covering Trans Mountain. (Photo by Andrew Larigakis)
Activists work to ensure Trans Mountain won’t get insurance

Global campaign urging insurance providers to stay away from Canadian pipeline project

Investigators use a bucket to help recover human remains at a home burned in the Camp fire, Thursday, Nov. 15, 2018, in Magalia, Calif. Many of the missing in the deadly Northern California wildfire are elderly residents in Magalia, a forested town of about 11,000 north of the destroyed town of Paradise. (AP Photo/John Locher)
‘Forever War’ with fire has California battling forests instead

Five of the state’s largest-ever blazes seared California last year, as authorities tackle prevention

Tokyo 2020 President Seiko Hashimoto and IOC President Thomas Bach, on a screen, speak during a five=party online meeting at Harumi Island Triton Square Tower Y in Tokyo Monday, June 21, 2021. The Tokyo Olympics will allow some local fans to attend when the games open in just over a month, Tokyo organizing committee officials and the IOC said on Monday. (Rodrigo Reyes Marin/Pool Photo via AP)
Tokyo Olympics to allow Japanese fans only, with strict limits

Organizers set a limit of 50% capacity — up to a maximum of 10,000 fans

Most Read