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Civilian Oversight of Police in Canada: Governance, Accountability and Transparency

Through MARL's participation in the Inner City Safety Coalition and its efforts to find a greater voice for the public on matters of policing in Winnipeg, we became interested in seeing what we could learn from other jurisdictions in Canada. In the summer of 2007, we set out to look at the role of civilians in the governance and oversight of municipal police services across Canada. On June 6, 2008, we released the Executive Summary of the report Civilian Oversight of Police in Canada: Governance, Accountability and Transparency. (see attached PDF version of the Executive Summary)

The central issue is how to strike a balance between maintaining the independence of the police from political interference and holding the police service accountable to the various levels of government and the public. Two important mechanisms are aimed at accomplishing this: governing police boards or associations and public complaint bodies. The participation of civilians in both of these bodies is what has come to be known as civilian oversight of police.

Governing police boards are responsible for setting priorities and policies, hiring the chief of police, setting an annual budget subject to council approval, and entering into collective bargaining with police personnel. The chief is then responsible to implement the policies and meet established priorities through the day to day operations of the police service and is accountable to the board. Specific details in the structure and operation of boards vary from province to province and benchmarks for comparing one board to another are still being developed. As a model is developed, the goal is to provide a structure and operations for governing boards that would minimize the potential for political interference while holding the police service accountable.

We found that governing police boards as mandated in provincial police acts are the norm across Canada. Manitoba is one of the exceptions. The Manitoba Police Act does not adequately set out the role and authority of police boards. In fact, in Winnipeg, governance is handled by the city’s municipal government. In effect, the police service is treated as another city department and service. Instead of a board directing police and setting priorities and the budget in consultation with the chief, policy is set by a council committee. Winnipeg has established a Police Advisory Board, which lacks the powers associated with governing boards. Although it includes civilian participants, it cannot govern; as its name suggests, it is advisory only.

The literature we reviewed offers some insights into the effective functioning of governing police boards. Good boards understand what governance means and how to apply it in practice. They focus on questions of policy, strategic value and managing risk in the future rather than concerning itself with everyday, ongoing operations. Board-police relations need to be as transparent as possible in order to ensure a high degree of accountability.

Public complaint bodies as mandated in provincial legislation are separate from the police service with clearly defined scope and function. Some have the authority to investigate complaints themselves while others review those that have been investigated by the police. In Manitoba, the Law Enforcement Review Agency (LERA) has the power to investigate public complaints of misconduct against the police. Investigations are conducted independent of the police service in question and is an example of civilian oversight of the police. Complaints may be resolved informally through mediation or may be referred to a judge for a public hearing. Some concerns with LERA include: former police officers are often hired as investigators; LERA is not able to investigate allegations of criminal misconduct of police officers; it is a reactive body and cannot initiate investigations without a complaint; there is no research or evaluation component; and underfunding has led to a lack of administrative support for investigations and case backlogs in the past.

As we found with governing police boards, standards have not yet been developed by which to compare public complaint bodies from one jurisdiction to another. However, there are some trends worth noting. Generally, the public is more satisfied with complaints being investigated by an independent body rather than by the police service itself. However, they were just as frustrated by backlogs and delays whether the investigation was independent or not. Perhaps surprisingly, complainants are not always seeking strict penalties against an officer. In cases involving less serious examples of misconduct, complainants prefer a genuine admission and an apology. Research indicates that the complaints process is often as or more important than the outcome of the complaint.

We may look to other countries for alternative models. In response to high profile cases of excessive use of force, the Los Angeles Police Department established monitors who produce use of force reports. Rather than investigate complaints, the monitors produce constructive reports for the purpose of improving policing by learning from past incidents. The role of the monitors has contributed to a reduction in misconduct and corruption among police officers in the Los Angeles Police Service.

Another instructive experience is that of the Crime and Misconduct Commission in Queensland, Australia. In response to serious corruption in the late 1980s, the commission was established as an independent external oversight body with the power to investigate and adjudicate police complaints and conduct investigations into police corruption. The CMC is impressive because it combines an independent investigative role with a substantial research and policy-making role. Its powers allow it to be proactive and prevent misconduct in addition to the authority to investigate complaints. It stands out among its counterparts elsewhere as an oversight model that can have a significant impact when given sufficient resources. Not only did it succeed in reducing incidences of serious assault and misconduct, it resulted in a positive change in police officer attitudes toward the misconduct of colleagues.

While more work is needed in developing models for the governance and oversight of policing, there are practices that show promise. Among these is civilian participation. We know that civilian participation in police governance boards and independent complaint bodies contributes to improving public confidence in police services.

CIVOVER Executive Summary 06-06-2008.pdf175.45 KB