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This article was published 12/7/2019 (920 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
A Canadian expert on civilian oversight of policing says Manitoba's police watchdog has abdicated its responsibility to conduct preliminary investigations into all criminal accusations lodged against police.
The issue is so critical that Ian Scott, a lawyer, academic and former head of Ontario’s Special Investigations Unit, said it could undermine the prospect of effective civilian oversight of police in the province entirely.
"If I were the minister of justice in Manitoba, I would be very concerned about this. In my opinion, this was improper and I would be very concerned the IIU is seemingly buying into this. I would be looking at some way of addressing this issue. They need to abide by the legislation. They need to do their job," Scott said.
Scott’s comments came one day after the Free Press revealed two Winnipeg Police Service officers have been accused of sexual assault in 2019. In one of the cases, it remains unclear if the matter was formally investigated, since the WPS chose not to notify the IIU as mandated by law.
On Thursday, an IIU spokeswoman seemed to indicate the agency had no problem with the WPS failing to notify it of a Feb. 26 sexual assault allegation against a city cop.
"Not every complaint or allegation against police results in a formal notification to the IIU. In many incidents, a preliminary investigation by the WPS determines there is no foundation to the complaint and therefore no statutory obligation to notify the IIU," the spokeswoman said in a written statement.
However, a Free Press review of the Police Services Act — the legislation governing the IIU and Manitoba law enforcement agencies — found no basis for the assertion police are allowed to conduct preliminary investigations into accusations against their members without notifying the watchdog.
"If I were the minister of justice in Manitoba, I would be very concerned about this. In my opinion, this was improper and I would be very concerned the IIU is seemingly buying into this." — Ian Scott, former head of Ontario’s Special Investigations Unit
At the request of the Free Press, Scott reviewed the legislation and came to the same conclusion.
"Sometimes words mean what they say. As hard as I squint at the legislation, I read: immediate notification. I don’t read: immediate notification after the police service has done a preliminary investigation. And that’s because it’s not there," Scott said.
"But let’s go back to that comment by the IIU spokesperson, because in my view it is disturbing. In essence, they are devolving their responsibility of preliminary investigation to the Winnipeg police. I had to re-read that quote... because I couldn’t believe it was from the IIU. At first, I thought the quote was from the police service. The IIU is accepting this protocol when they shouldn’t be."
An equally sharp reaction came from Robert Taman, who said it’s "disturbing," although not surprising, these issues continue to surface nearly 15 years after his wife, Crystal, was killed by an off-duty WPS officer in 2005.
The botched police investigation into the death of his wife sparked a provincial inquiry that eventually led to the creation of the IIU. Taman was named an original member of the Manitoba Police Commission, which helped guide the creation of the new police watchdog.
"This is disturbing. This is really, really disturbing," Taman said. "If this is the way it operates, shut it all down. Shut it down now, because it’s not doing what it is supposed to do. And when I say shut it down, I mean it. Why are we wasting our money if the WPS are going to determine everything anyway?
"The IIU’s response is basically like the dog that gets hit with the rolled up newspaper and cowers. They are cowering and they are giving into the Winnipeg Police Service. If the IIU doesn’t even stand by the legislation, how is this ever going to work? It will never work."
The first sexual assault allegation lodged against a WPS officer in 2019 came on Feb. 26. The IIU has confirmed it was not notified of the complaint.
"This is really, really disturbing. If this is the way it operates, shut it all down. Shut it down now." — Robert Taman
It remains unclear if the WPS launched a formal internal investigation into the matter and, if so, what the outcome was. It is not known if the accused officer faced disciplinary action or if he is still a WPS employee.
The second sexual assault allegation against a WPS officer came May 15. The IIU was quickly notified and the accused officer was placed on paid administrative leave. The investigation into the allegation — which is being monitored by the IIU — is ongoing.
The Free Press has learned from law enforcement sources the second sexual assault case involves a WPS officer accused of sexually assaulting the wife of a colleague during a "shifter" party.
The police subculture includes shift-ending drinking parties, often called "shifters." They have been implicated in a number of high-profile criminal charges laid against Manitoba police officers over the years, including in the death of Crystal Taman.
The existence of both 2019 sexual assault accusations was uncovered by the Free Press after it obtained internal WPS documents through a freedom of information request.
Scott said that in the #MeToo era the handling of sexual assault allegations by police has rightly come under the microscope. He said it’s improper for a police service to be conducting preliminary investigations into such allegations when they’re made against one of their own.
"This is a particularly sensitive issue right now. In a sexual assault case, that initial interview of the complainant is so important. It is so important that the investigative process in sexual matters is thorough and independent and does not even have a tainting of conflict of interest," he said.
"There was a prima facie allegation of sexual assault. The whole purpose of having the IIU is to make sure they’re responsible for making the decision if there should be an investigation. If the IIU is not making that call, then there’s no point in having an independent agency."
Ryan Thorpe likes the pace of daily news, the feeling of a broadsheet in his hands and the stress of never-ending deadlines hanging over his head.