Public to get more time to file formal complaints against police

The province plans to give people in Nova Scotia more time to file an official complaint against police.

Right now, someone who wants to file a complaint with the independent Office of the Police Complaints Commisioner has six months to do so. The province plans to extend the time limit to one year.

The change would apply to all municipal police forces in Nova Scotia. The time limit on complaints against the RCMP is already one year.

The current police complaints process has come under fire in the last year in some high-profile instances, such as Carrie Low, a woman who said Halifax Regional Police failed to properly investigate a rape committed against her.

The complaints process was also identified as a concern in the Wortley report, which was released by the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission last year and examined street checks by police on the black community.

Robert Short/CBC
Robert Short/CBC

"I think a year is far more consistent with other policing services across Canada, and a six-month time limit is just ultimately too short," said Emma Halpern, the executive director of the Elizabeth Fry Society of Mainland Nova Scotia.

"It doesn't allow people to process what's happened and their concerns and complaints in order to bring it forward. So I think it's definitely a positive all around to see the complaints process amended."

However, Halpern said for sexual assault survivors, a one-year time limit on complaints may be too short.

"Because of the incredible trauma associated with sexual assault, the time at which you might discover that you've had a mishandling of the case or a harm committed by the policing agency, that might happen at a later date once you've had a chance to process the trauma that you've been going through. Really, that shouldn't be limited to a year."

Low's complaint against Halifax police was not heard because she filed it outside the six-month time limit. She has launched a court challenge and wants a judge to order the police complaints commissioner to investigate her complaint.

The anticipated changes to legislation, however, would not be retroactive and won't help her.

"I'm certainly delighted to see that there is going to be a change made, however I do feel that there does need to be some alternate changes to that," Low said.

Brett Ruskin/CBC
Brett Ruskin/CBC

One issue is that a person might not discover police have been negligent until much later. Even if they quickly file a complaint, it may still be too long after the negligence actually occurred.

"For future, people that need to bring complaints against police services, I think it's great, it's a good step in the right direction. But I will be up for a lengthy battle in mine," she said.

The province told the Nova Scotia Federation of Municipalities in a letter that the police complaints commissioner will have the ability to extend the timeline beyond one year if there's a good reason to do so, in the public interest.

The province hasn't decided exactly what date the change will take effect, but the earliest it could happen is Dec. 19, 2020.

Last May, the Halifax board of police commissioners decided to ask the provincial minister of justice to extend the six-month period for complaints to one year, following concerns brought forward in the Wortley report.

The police complaints commissioner, Judith McPhee, also asked for the six months to be extended.

'We need to increase the dialogue'

Halifax Regional Police Chief Dan Kinsella told reporters at a board of police commissioners meeting Monday that he was not certain how the proposed change would affect the number of complaints and the cost of responding to them.

"We will respect any changes that are brought forward," he said. "As far as costing goes, it remains to be seen. Intuitively you would say that there will be an increased cost because there's more of an opportunity for people to bring these matters forward."

Kinsella said he thinks it is "exceedingly important" for people to bring their concerns about police forward.

"We need to increase the dialogue, we need to increase community members' opportunities to come forward whenever they want to bring any information in regards to police conduct or activity," he said.

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