10 law professors join calls for more oversight of Newfoundland and Labrador police

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ST. JOHN'S, N.L. — A group of law professors in Nova Scotia is joining calls for more civilian-led oversight of police in Newfoundland and Labrador, as the force grapples with allegations of sexual misconduct against its members.

Ten professors from Dalhousie University's Schulich School of Law wrote an open letter to Newfoundland and Labrador Justice Minister John Hogan this week, echoing a St. John's-based Indigenous group's calls for a civilian-led board to oversee police.

"In most provinces in Canada — including Nova Scotia — police services are directly accountable to civilian-led police boards or commissions that are established by statute," said the professors' letter, released Tuesday.

"Ensuring the transparency and accountability of police through comprehensive oversight is critical to the rule of law."

As of last July, Newfoundland and Labrador has its own civilian-led police watchdog agency — the Serious Incident Response Team. Led by lawyer Mike King, the agency investigates injuries, death, sexual assault and domestic violence involving officers from the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary and the RCMP, with whom the Constabulary shares policing duties in the province.

The Royal Newfoundland Constabulary also has an independent, civilian-led public complaints commission.

Justin Campbell of Indigenous coalition First Voice says a civilian-led oversight board would play a different role than those two authorities.

"Both of those bodies are reactive forms of civilian oversight," said Campbell, whose organization has a working group advocating for civilian-led police oversight in accordance with the Calls for Justice laid out by the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.

"The civilian oversight board that we're proposing would have the power to draft and enforce policies related to the way that policing is conducted here."

The board, Campbell added, would be proactive and aimed at establishing policies that better serve the public, rather than responding to complaints when existing policies fail.

Such a board is needed in Newfoundland and Labrador, he said, pointing as evidence to the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary's quiet introduction last year of a policy regarding the transport of members of the public. An access to information request showed that the force put in place new rules last September forbidding officers from offering people rides home unless the ride is part of a service call.

The rules were introduced after public complaints emerged alleging officers had acted inappropriately after offering women rides home from downtown St. John's. Royal Newfoundland Constabulary Chief Patrick Roche's note to officers emphasized that the force's policies are confidential.

Campbell said it was concerning that The Canadian Press had to submit an access to information request to find out about the policy — the force had otherwise refused to answer questions about it. "It raises all kinds of questions about transparency, how the policy was drafted, and who had input," he said. "Never mind how the policy is supposed to be enforced."

The issue of police offering people rides home came up in the trials of Const. Carl Douglas Snelgrove, who was convicted in May of 2021 for sexually assaulting a woman while on duty after driving her home from downtown St. John's. He is appealing that conviction.

Snelgrove first went to trial for the charge in 2017, and testified that it was not uncommon for officers to give people lifts home.

Campbell said a civilian-led board could have helped stop that practice. "Had we had a board in place … that certainly would have come to their attention, and they would have been able to act much more quickly to address that gap in policy."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 8, 2022.

Sarah Smellie, The Canadian Press