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More options for civilian oversight of police in Newfoundland and Labrador

Justice Minister Andrew Parsons speaks with reporters Thursday outside the House of Assembly.
Justice Minister Andrew Parsons speaks with reporters Thursday outside the House of Assembly. - David Maher

Atlantic Canada-wide civilian oversight agency for police could be beneficial: former SIRT leader

As the provincial government prepares for civilian oversight of local police forces, the former head of the Nova Scotia Serious Incident Response Team wonders if a more regional approach might be the way to go.

On Thursday, Justice Minister Andrew Parsons announced the search for the executive director for the province’s own civilian oversight body for the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary (RNC) and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP).

Ron MacDonald, the former executive director of the Nova Scotia Serious Incident Response Team (NSIRT) and current chief civilian director with the Independent Investigations Office of British Columbia, says rather than taking a province-to-province approach, there could be merit in an Atlantic Canada-wide civilian oversight body.

“We decided to move forward with a standalone. We believe that’s what’s best for the province at this time. We’ll never close the door on collaboration with other provinces.” — Andrew Parsons

Because the population of the region is not large, the volume of incidents to investigate tends to be less, MacDonald says, and if Atlantic Canada were to pool resources, it could actually result in more robust oversight.

“One of the advantages to having an Atlantic unit is you can maybe get away with, for example, three (staff) in Newfoundland — I’m not going to give the exact numbers — but if something were to happen, a couple of big files in a row, then you could borrow other parts of the team in other areas,” said MacDonald.

That said, MacDonald says it’s a good move by the government to establish a local SIRT team – he just hopes Parsons will continue to examine the benefits of a region-wide approach.

Parsons says a regional approach was considered, but ultimately the decision was to keep things local.

“It became evident as we moved through the process that it may delay things being done – and they’ve had some changes recently, too,” said Parsons.

“We decided to move forward with a standalone. We believe that’s what’s best for the province at this time. We’ll never close the door on collaboration with other provinces.”

Parsons says with the changes to the Nova Scotia team, and the fact they already work with New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island, it’s become less certain that an investigation would be quickly launched if and when another serious incident takes place.

“I’d like to rely on our own team,” he said.”

The province committed $250,000 to get the project off the ground in 2018-19, with plans for $500,000 in annual funding. From December 2015 to 2018, the province spent approximately $30,000 a year to hire civilian oversight investigators, though the province was not invoiced at full cost for those investigations.

A job posting for the executive director was posted on Thursday, with the deadline for applications set for Feb. 12.

SiRT director Ronald MacDonald and Justice Minister Andrew Parsons speak to the media Thursday afternoon.
Former NSIRT director Ronald MacDonald and N.L. Justice Minister Andrew Parsons. — SaltWire Network

One of the requirements for the position is that the person has never worked as a police officer at any point in their career.

MacDonald says when it comes to ideal candidates, the person will have to have an intimate knowledge of the justice system – which makes experienced lawyers or judges likely some top candidates for the role.

“What you have is people who have intimate knowledge of the criminal justice system,” said MacDonald.

“People who understand what’s needed in an investigation and can show whether or not a crime has been committed.”

The civilian director will oversee a staff of investigators and have legislative authority to begin investigations independent of the government or police. While the lead investigator is civilian, during his time in Nova Scotia, MacDonald worked with four police officers who conducted investigations, while answering only to him.

While it may be counter intuitive to still have investigations of police officers conducted by police officers, MacDonald says the expertise they brought to his office was invaluable.

Parsons says he is independent of the hiring process for the civilian director, but he hopes the Public Service Commission will expedite the hiring to allow the work to begin as soon as possible.

Currently, there are five incidents being investigated by SIRTs from other jurisdictions, and two currently before the courts. Four of the current investigations involve the RNC, while the fifth examines RCMP conduct.

The SIRT will not replace the existing RNC public complaints commission, which takes in civilian complaints against police officers.

Twitter: @DavidMaherNL

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