The number of complaints about the conduct of municipal police officers in Saskatchewan began rising sharply shortly after the COVID-19 pandemic began, and many of those complaints relate to the enforcement of public health measures, the province's Public Complaints Commission (PCC) says.
From April 1, 2020, to March 31, 2021, the PCC received 246 complaints about police conduct. That's up 32 per cent from the 186 complaints received the previous year.
"The PCC has noted a significant number of complaints that can be directly linked to various aspects of the pandemic, such as confrontations between police and those opposed to mask-wearing requirements or other public health measures," the commission wrote in its latest annual report.
"COVID-19 has caused immense hardship for the entire province. The added stress caused by public health concerns has been sustained for a lengthy period of time and all persons, including the police, have been affected."
Mental health in general, and the role it plays in police calls, is an increasing concern, according to the report.
"Some of these are likely attributable to the various impacts of the pandemic and can be expected to continue for some time. Others are undoubtedly linked to the addiction crisis in the province, itself compounded by the pandemic. These encounters are distressing for all involved and the PCC continues to encourage increased training in this area for police officers."
The PCC doubled the number of complaints investigators to six in the summer of 2020, but it's "still not sufficient" to handle the workload, the report goes on to say.
Changes to police oversight
The coming months will see big changes to police oversight in Saskatchewan.
In October a Serious Incident Response Team (SIRT), headed by a recently-appointed civilian executive director, will take over jurisdiction for the investigation of serious police incidents involving injury, death or sexual assault. Many of those investigations were previously taken up by external police forces, sparking persistent concerns about police investigating police.
The SIRT will have its own specialized investigators based in Saskatoon, as opposed to drawing on the already-taxed investigators at the PCC.
The PCC, meanwhile, will maintain its focus on less serious allegations of police misconduct.
In the annual report, the PCC noted a rising concern about "a small number of police officers who receive multiple complaints, often about the abuse of their authority, and what appears to be a lack of serious consequences for the repetition of such behaviours."
The increased use of body-worn and police car cameras has helped investigators and "continues to be of great interest," according to the commission.
Out of the 246 complaints received in 2020-2021, only three were substantiated. Eighty-nine are still being investigated, 78 were deemed unfounded, 27 were withdrawn, 21 were found to not merit further investigation, 12 were unsubstantiated and nine were resolved informally, according to this table:
According to the PCC's website, once an investigation is completed, the five-person commission will decide whether police misconduct occurred and share its conclusion and recommendations with the chief of police.
The chief is then responsible for meting out any discipline.