Killing Independence: Active Officers and the Independent Investigations Unit in Manitoba

Despite the ongoing and consistently stated desires of civilian populations for independent civilian oversight of police forces in the Canadian context it is still the case that independent oversight or investigations units have not been established in all provinces. Even more though in those provinces in which supposedly independent investigations units have been established there are very real and serious concerns about the lack of actual independence of these units from police agencies. This includes cases of the outright presence of police officers as members of these units or the use of police to deliver compulsory training to unit members.

The Independent Investigation Unit in Manitoba (IIU) was only founded in 2011. Yet it has taken very little time for the unit to succumb to problems of involvement of police and concerns over lack of transparency that have quickly overtaken other units in Canada. On April 15, 2016, it was announced that a key civilian member of the Manitoba Police Commission has quit the position over concerns that police officers are investigating themselves (CBC News 2016).

Robert Taman was appointed to the nine-person commission in 2011 but has resigned due to what he calls a “difference of opinion” regarding police involvement in the IIU. In resigning his position Taman reported that an active member of the Winnipeg Police Service joined the Independent Investigation Unit in April and as a result he came to the conclusion that he must quit his position. The conflict of interest and lack of independence and integrity this implies for investigations of officers seem rather straightforward and clear. In Taman’s words:

“To have them actually conduct an investigation against one of their former brothers in a crime situation, I think they would have a difficult time separating themselves in the situation, and I just feel it should be an outside source. It has to be done a certain way. And I don’t think anything has gone awry; I think everybody’s trying hard to put together something that’s going to work. I just think sometimes things aren’t done quite the way they should be done, because it doesn’t quite fit within the government parameters.” (quoted in CBC News 2016)

This is a particularly poignant case of independence being invalidated by the presence of a police officer given that the IIU in Manitoba was created as one of the recommendations following from an inquiry into the police killing of Robert Taman’s wife in 2005. Taman has been a tireless advocate for accountability and integrity in policing, and civilian oversight, since his wife, Crystal, was killed in a crash involving an off-duty Winnipeg police officer (CBC News 2016).

Crystal Taman, a 40-year-old mother of three, was killed when her car, which had stopped at a traffic light, was struck by a pickup truck driven by off-duty Winnipeg police officer 31-year-old Derek Harveymordenzenk (also known as Derek Harvey-Zenk). Harveymordenzenk had spent that evening partying with colleagues. As a result of his killing Taman he received only a two-year conditional sentence. This after pleading guilty to dangerous driving causing death. There was great public outcry over the light sentence given Harveymordenzenk. This led to a provincial inquiry that concluded with recommendations for what were to be substantial structural changes to the practice of policing in Manitoba.

The provincial inquiry examined what was a dubious police investigation into the crash and made recommendations including the establishment of a police commission and independent investigation unit. Members of the Manitoba Police Commission are appointed by the provincial government which has raised some questions of political interference, favoritism, or coercion. It is the commission that assigns civilian monitors to investigations conducted by the Independent Investigation Unit in cases in which a civilian is killed or suffers serious injury in incidents involving police officers (CBC News 2016).

At the time of formation of the Manitoba Police Commission in 2011, then provincial Attorney General Andrew Swan had much to say about civilian input and oversight and accountability measures regarding police. In his words at the time:

“This diverse group of men and women will play a fundamental part in providing a new era of civilian input, governance, transparency and accountability in the delivery of policing services in Manitoba. We’re taking the next step in replacing outdated legislation with the new Police Services Act, ensuring that our police officers are supported with a modern act and that citizens can play a crucial role in overseeing the delivery of policing services well into the future.” (quoted in CBC News 2011)

A new Police Services Act was drafted following the recommendations of the Taman Inquiry, and the appointment of the Manitoba Police Commission was viewed as the first crucial step in implementing the Police Services Act. Since its founding the commission has been tasked with providing advice on required policing standards including matters of police training and equipment. The commission also helps to train the local police boards that were established in areas operating their own police services. Local police boards trained by the commission are given the power to hire the police chief, propose and administer police budgets, as well as setting the overall direction and operation of its police service (CBC News 2011).

In addition it is the commission that was charged with recruiting and training the roster of people who were supposed to monitor investigations of police incidents involving harm as well as allegations against police officers by the IIU. This roster was supposed to be composed of civilians as Attorney General Swan stated in his announcement of the first commission.

Clearly the independent character of the IIU in Manitoba has been formally ended. This is a fate that took little time in arriving. It is by no means the exception in the Canadian state context. Indeed it is the (all too predictable) rule. The blue wall of silence is not relinquished readily or easily (or at all) by police in Canada.

 

Further Reading

CBC News. 2011. “Police Commission Board Announced.” CBC News. February 11. http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/manitoba/police-commission-board-announced-1.997808

CBC News. 2016. “Robert Taman Quits Manitoba Police Commission Over IIU Concerns.” April 15. http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/manitoba/robert-taman-manitoba-police-commission-1.3538005

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