first_imgHALIFAX – Plans are in the works to create a single, civilian-led agency to police the police in Atlantic Canada, though a debate is brewing on whether bigger changes are needed to build trust in the region’s law officers.Senior government officials in the four provinces have confirmed the plan is to expand Nova Scotia’s Serious Incident Response Team into a region-wide investigator.“We definitely agreed this is a concept worth recommending to our respective governments,” said Michael Comeau, deputy minister of justice in New Brunswick.He said four deputy ministers of justice met in early June and came to an agreement in principle, though cabinet ministers and premiers have yet to sign off on the plan.In Newfoundland and Labrador, Justice Minister Andrew Parsons described the idea as the one his government is leaning towards, noting his province is looking for ways to save money.“One of the big drawing points of an Atlantic SIRT team is that there are economies of scale that could be achieved there,” he said.In Nova Scotia, Justice Minister Mark Furey said the idea is a way to use expertise his province has developed. In Prince Edward Island, Justice Department official Gordon Garrison said his government already uses the Nova Scotia-based agency and he said he favours the creation of a regional body.However, some observers say the four provinces should go beyond cost considerations and make bigger changes to strengthen civilian oversight of the police.The existing watchdog in Nova Scotia has a mandate to investigate cases that involve death, serious injury, sexual assault, domestic violence or other matters of “significant public interest” that may have resulted from the actions of a police officer, and to decide if charges should be laid.John Sewell, a former mayor of Toronto and an author on police issues, said if the Atlantic provinces want to expand SIRT, they should also give it the ability to make recommendations on how police can improve their performance.He says that even if SIRT investigators conclude no criminal wrongdoing occurred, they should have the ability to state if police conduct was “reasonable,” and make recommendations for changes. The existing SIRT model doesn’t have that option.“I think the agency should be looking at what happened and make some proposals in regards to what happened, so that it doesn’t happen again,” said Sewell.Other observers say there’s a need for a wider reform of the powers and transparency of each province’s police commissions, which look into questions of misconduct or poor performance by police.“We should look at the special investigations unit in the wider context of police complaints, discipline and education,” said Kent Roach, a law professor at the University in Toronto.A recent review of Ontario’s police oversight system by Justice Michael Tulloch made 129 recommendations, including a suggestion to hire more investigators without police backgrounds and ensuring investigations occur in a timely fashion.However, the head of Nova Scotia’s Serious Incident Response Team, Ron MacDonald, said he believes that if a single SIRT agency is created in the region, it should continue to focus solely on criminal wrongdoing.The investigation of criminal matters implies a particular way of handling evidence, including the constitutional right of officers not to speak about the allegations.“When you start to talk about what should be a policy, what shouldn’t be a policy … and how should police conduct themselves, these are much more complex questions,” he said in an interview.However, MacDonald said some of his reports’ findings in areas such as high-speed chases have resulted in police forces altering their behaviour in Nova Scotia.“They seem to discontinue them more quickly and more often,” he said.Meanwhile, Parsons said he’s optimistic that in his province a unified Atlantic SIRT could make a difference in the perception of police investigations of police conduct.“People look on ‘blue on blue’ or police investigating their own as perhaps not being the right model … Police themselves have called for this,” he said.MacDonald estimates that the annual cost of operating SIRT in Nova Scotia is about $850,000, if you include the salaries of two officers seconded to his team from outside police forces.He said it’s likely that the agency would be based in Halifax, with an office in Newfoundland and Labrador to allow for quicker response in that jurisdiction.There were no precise annual costs available for New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Labrador or P.E.I.Follow (at)mtuttoncporg on Twitter.last_img