Police oversight refers to the process of monitoring, supervising, and evaluating the actions and behavior of law enforcement agencies and officers to ensure accountability, transparency, and the protection of citizens’ rights. It is a critical component in restoring public perceptions and trust in the police, as it provides a mechanism for reviewing the actions of law enforcement and ensuring that they adhere to legal and ethical standards.
On January 1, 2023, Saskatchewan created the Serious Incident Response Team (SIRT), an independent police oversight body. Saskatchewan was one of the last remaining provinces without an independent police oversight body. SIRT is currently involved in the investigation of Myles Sanderson who died in police custody a short time after his arrest. Civilian-led police watchdog groups in other provinces have received criticism for lacking transparency and having a culture of secrecy. SIRT seeks to right those wrongs by publishing its findings 3 months after an investigation concludes.
How Does Civilian Oversight of the Police Work?
Civilian oversight of police can be split into two categories: complaints from the public concerning a police officer’s non-criminal misconduct, and investigations into police officers whose actions led to the serious injury or death of an individual, and police officers who’ve allegedly broken the law.
Public Complaint Process
Every province in Canada has a system in place for the public to make complaints about non-criminal police misconduct, such as violations of standards of conduct. For instance, in Manitoba, a person can make a complaint if they believe a police officer was uncivil or discourteous while on duty. The complaints are reviewed by the oversight body to ensure legitimacy, and if deemed legitimate, are forwarded to the police service that employs the officer in question. The oversight body then oversees the police service’s handling of the complaint to ensure it is handled correctly.
In the case of a major incident, the standard procedure is for the police service to inform the investigative agency in the province. The agency will then investigate the incident to determine if any wrongdoing occurred. Some agencies have the authority to file criminal charges if criminal wrongdoing is found, while others can only recommend criminal charges. The public cannot directly initiate an investigation by the agency into allegations of law-breaking by a police officer. They must report the allegations through a public complaint process or a police service, which can then refer the complaint to the investigative agency.
Police Oversight Aims to Protect Civilians’ Rights
In addition to promoting accountability and transparency, police oversight also serves to protect citizens’ rights. Police officers are granted significant powers and authority to enforce the law and maintain public safety, but this power must be balanced against the rights of citizens to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures, to be protected from excessive force, and to be treated fairly and justly. Police oversight agencies play a critical role in ensuring that these rights are protected and that officers are held accountable for any violations.
When police officers are aware that their actions are being monitored and evaluated, they are more likely to behave in a professional and responsible manner. Police oversight also provides a means for citizens to voice their concerns about police behavior and to hold officers accountable for any misconduct.
Restore Public Confidence in the Police
Public trust in law enforcement is crucial for maintaining public safety. For instance, a victim of crime may hesitate to report it to the police if they believe that they may be mistreated or their case will be handled improperly.
Challenges of Police Oversight
Police Policing Police
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. source
The Editorial Board, “Too often ‘police oversight’ still means police investigating themselves. That has to change”, The Globe and Mail, July 15, 2023
However, police oversight is not without its challenges. One of the biggest obstacles is ensuring the independence and impartiality of police oversight agencies. In many cases, police oversight agencies are staffed by former law enforcement officers or have close ties to the police department. There are 20 civilian-led police oversight bodies across Canada. Two-thirds of staff at Canada’s police oversight bodies are ex-officers. This can create the perception of a conflict of interest and undermine the credibility and effectiveness of the oversight process.
Furthermore, In an audit of British Columbia’s public complaint process, it was found that many complaints against police were improperly investigated despite civilian oversight. Additionally, investigative agencies can bring criminal charges against the police but police officers are often successful in defending themselves against these charges. It is common for individuals to acknowledge that a police officer may not be legally guilty, but still consider their behavior to be inappropriate.
How Are Complaints Handled?
If someone has an issue with the behavior of an RCMP officer, they can file a complaint with the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission. The commission’s initial step in the review process is to forward the complaint to the RCMP for evaluation and investigation. This system, which appears to favor the police at the very least, is the typical way lower-level complaints are addressed.
Resources and Funding
Finally, police oversight agencies often struggle with limited resources and funding, which can limit their ability to effectively investigate and resolve complaints of police misconduct. This can result in a backlog of cases, lengthy wait times for resolution, and a lack of public disclosure for officers who engage in misconduct.
Areas for Improvement
Legislative power to lay criminal charges – In British Columbia and Quebec, for example, they must refer judgment to the Crown, which then determines whether charges are warranted.
Representation – Previous investigations into racial bias call for the views of Black, Indigenous, and other minority groups to be represented on civilian-led oversight agencies.
Reporting – The lack of transparency in the release of reports by some police oversight agencies is a concern, as it restricts the public’s access to information on how the investigators arrived at their conclusions in each case. For instance, Quebec’s BEI does not make its investigative reports public, while other provincial oversight agencies, such as Alberta’s Serious Incident Response Team, only release summarized investigative reports. It is imperative for ensuring public transparency that all police oversight bodies make their complete investigative findings available.
Expand the mandate for investigations – Currently, the various provincial oversight agencies typically examine significant incidents between police and members of the public, including those involving death, severe injury, and sexual assault. However, police oversight agencies should be empowered to exercise their authority in a broader range of police misconduct, including the use of force incidents that do not result in serious harm, and behavior that negatively impacts the community.
Despite these challenges, police oversight remains a critical component of the criminal justice system and an essential tool for promoting accountability, transparency, the protection of citizens’ rights, and restoring public trust and confidence in the police. To be effective, police oversight must be independent, impartial, and adequately funded and staffed, and must be supported by law enforcement agencies and the public. Therefore, civilian oversight processes can guarantee that police misconduct is thoroughly investigated and that officers receive appropriate disciplinary action.