Sask. establishing watchdog to respond after serious incidents involving police

Organizations like Saskatchewan's nascent Serious Incident Response Team (SIRT) need to be seen as objective, unbiased and independent, according to a policing expert.

It its 2021 budget, the Government of Saskatchewan announced it would provide $287,000 to the Public Complaints Commission to develop the team, "making Saskatchewan’s police oversight consistent with that of other Canadian jurisdictions.”

"Some people might question why we need this type of oversight, since they feel comfortable with the police that we currently have. And this is great. But we need everyone to feel this way," said Scott Thompson, a University of Saskatchewan associate professor who teaches surveillance, criminology and penology.

In other provinces, bodies such as Ontario's Special Investigations Unit are brought in when there is a serious incident involving police such as an officer-involved shooting or allegations of misconduct.

However, in Saskatchewan, rather than an independent agency, another police force in the province is typically tasked with investigating following a serious incident.

"We need for everyone to feel that the system is just. And independent oversight has been shown to be an effective way towards that," Thompson said.

Minister of Justice and Attorney General Gord Wyant said work on the unit is starting now, and that issues of accountability and transparency are important to him, his ministry and the government. The unit will look at serious injuries or deaths involving police officers.

"Certainly part of this is all around assisting the Public Complaints Commission in the work that they do, paying particular attention of course to the serious incidents that occur from time to time in the province to make sure that there is proper oversight."

Thompson said some police watchdog agencies can also recommend policing changes.

"The outcome that everybody's looking for is the just one. That is, the community feels that a good investigation has been done, the police services feel, again, that they haven't been wronged or slighted by the process, and that the community can come back together after one of these incidents, and really be comfortable with a solution that was found."

Thompson said Saskatchewan's unit must be properly funded and the community must be consulted on its leadership, whether it be a former officer or a civilian.

"Those types of organizational questions are crucial in making sure that people feel that the outcomes of this body will be just. There's no point in making all of these investments in this type of system, if the community itself doesn't feel that the outcomes will be okay with them, or will be something that they'll be happy with."

Wyant said the province wants seasoned investigators involved.

"To make sure that we have qualified people to do the proper investigations really requires people with a significant amount of experience and experience around the country is to use retired police officers to do that work. As I say, we're going to be working out the details of this as we go forward and we'll have more to say about that shortly."

Last summer, the province also announced that the Public Complaints Commission would appoint investigators for deaths in police custody, allegations of excessive police force or sexual and workplace harassment within police forces.

Saskatoon Mayor Charlie Clark said he was pleased to see the province announce the SIRT program.

"It brings Saskatchewan up to a national standard when it comes to not having police investigate police in serious incidents," Clark said.

"This is something the Saskatchewan Association of Chiefs of Police called for and we asked for it at the Board of Police Commissioners and I do want to acknowledge the Ministry of Justice for taking the steps forward to set this up."

With files from Francois Biber