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Robert Mitchell

Police complaints commissioner

Province aims to overhaul police complaints procedures

Robert Mitchell

Robert Mitchell during 80s when NDP was in opposition. He later became Minister of Justice and ran flak for Roy Romanow during the cover-ups of Martensville and Klassen Satanic ritual abuse cases

REGINA -- After a string of high-profile cases, the provincial government is making fundamental changes to the way complaints against police in the province are handled.

On Monday in the legislature, Justice Minister Frank Quennell introduced for second reading The Police Amendment Act, 2005, which, if passed, will see the creation of a new five-person Public Complaints Commission with expanded powers, including having direct control over the investigation into any public complaint against the police, including criminal matters.

The commission will be required to have at least one First Nations person and one Metis person in its membership as well as First Nations and Metis representation at the investigator level.

"What we want to do is provide a police complaints process that everybody in the province -- First Nations, Metis people and police officers -- can have confidence in," Quennell told reporters.

The changes to the system are based on recommendations made by the Commission on First Nations and Metis People and Justice Reform and the inquiry into the death of Neil Stonechild last year.

That inquiry found that two Saskatoon police officers had Stonechild in their custody on the night he froze to death in 1990. That led to the firing of the two officers last year.

Quennell said that situation provides a good example of why the system needed to be changed.

"That family had no confidence and I think they were correct to have no confidence that the Saskatoon Police Service would address their concerns about the officers who were allegedly addressing the death of Neil Stonechild," said Quennell.

Two other Saskatoon officers, Dan Hatchen and Ken Munson, were fired and convicted of unlawful confinement after a Native man, Darrell Night, said they had abandoned him on the outskirts of the city in freezing weather.

In the current system overseen by The Police Act, 1990, the police complaints investigator is an independent civilian who reviews public complaints about municipal police services, usually involving issues such as discreditable conduct, neglect of duty, improper disclosure of information and abuse of authority.

Criminal complaints against officers are handled by police, with investigations often referred to other departments.

The changes come after consultations with the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations, Metis representatives, provincial police chiefs and police unions.

The legislation will also see changes that allow the commission to complete investigations against a member or chief of police even after that person resigns.

The commission will be appointed by the provincial cabinet and is expected to be in place sometime this year.

The government appointed former justice minister Bob Mitchell to the post of police complaints investigator last year in anticipation of a major revamping of the system.

Revamped complaints process adds credibility, Mitchell says

Changing the way complaints about municipal police officers are investigated will be a "giant leap forward," says the man put in charge of revising the system.

Bob Mitchell, a former provincial justice minister, described the proposed model as "approachable and credible" for the aboriginal community and the Saskatchewan public at large. He was a panel speaker at a conference on aboriginal people and the criminal justice system put on by the University of Saskatchewan college of law.

According to Mitchell, Indian and Metis people have little confidence in the current provincial complaints system and are not using it to bring concerns forward regarding municipal police forces. He also said "people are very skeptical about police investigating themselves."

The relationship between the Saskatoon Police Service and the aboriginal community was subjected to intense scrutiny during last year's inquiry into the 1990 freezing death of Neil Stonechild and the subsequent firing of constables Brad Senger and Larry Hartwig after police chief Russ Sabo found them unsuitable for duty in the wake of the Stonechild inquiry report.

And in 2001, Saskatoon police constables Dan Hatchen and Ken Munson were convicted of unlawful confinement and later fired for dropping an aboriginal man, Darrell Night, on the outskirts of the city in freezing weather in 2000.

Mitchell was named the provincial police complaints investigator in July of last year with a mandate to revamp the police complaints process. It was a key recommendation in the final report of the Commission on First Nations and Metis People and Justice Reform released last June.

Under the new model, the decision to investigate a complaint will be made by a five-person commission comprised of people drawn from the First Nations community, the Metis community and the overall Saskatchewan population, rather than by the judgment of a single investigator.

According to Mitchell, staff will increase to six additional full-time employees, including three investigators.

"We'll be opening an office in Saskatoon very shortly," he said, "and two of our new investigators will be located in the Saskatoon office."

People will be able to lodge complaints at the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations' (FSIN) special investigations unit and the Department of Justice as well as at the police station, said Mitchell.

Under the new system, commission investigators and outside police services will handle the complaints, while the police department named in the complaint will only investigate routine matters that involve little controversy.

FSIN vice-chief Lawrence Joseph, who also spoke at the conference, said the existing structure has "failed us miserably," and aboriginal people have been turning in large numbers to their own special investigations unit to lodge complaints.

"We have to retain our own facilities, that are First Nations friendly, because the people that are out there are afraid to use the existing systems. They don't know they're there, and they've been conditioned to believe, and conditioned to know, that nothing ever happens," he said.

He does hold some hope for the new complaints system.

"It is a major step and something that is direly needed," he said. "It's a step that we as First Nations people have to watch very cautiously."

Joseph renewed his call for a First Nations justice system that would include a provincewide tribal police force and said he hopes to put forward a framework by the end of the year.

Sabo also spoke at the conference about efforts by his force to improve aboriginal and police relations. He said the force is actively recruiting people from the First Nations and Metis communities into front-line duty in the police service. Sabo said the aboriginal liaison unit, increased to two members in the last five years, works closely with the aboriginal community, and the police commission has upgraded cultural sensitivity training at the college where officers train.

"We will learn from our mistakes and try to do better," said Sabo.

"This new complaints process has a lot of potential," he said. "And I think our police service has a lot of potential."

Mitchell hopes the process for the revised complaints system can receive cabinet approval and pass through the legislature in the coming spring session.

"The process will be more transparent, it will be more user friendly, and finally the problem of police investigating their fellow officers will be a thing of the past in sensitive or controversial complaints."