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Sask. police chiefs welcome independent oversight body

Saskatchewan is the second last province to create a civilian-led police oversight unit. Police chiefs in the province and a former leader of civilian oversight in Ontario say the move is overdue. (Graeme Roy/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Saskatchewan is the second last province to create a civilian-led police oversight unit. Police chiefs in the province and a former leader of civilian oversight in Ontario say the move is overdue. (Graeme Roy/The Canadian Press - image credit)

Saskatchewan police chiefs say the creation of an independent civilian-led oversight unit is welcome.

The province's Serious Incident Response Team (SIRT) was officially operational as of Jan. 1, 2023, but has opened files on every police-related serious incident as of April 1, 2022.

Saskatchewan is one of the last provinces to establish independent civilian police oversight.

SIRT has the authority to launch investigations into incidents involving police, such as police shootings, that result in serious injury or death. It can also investigate allegations of sexual assault or domestic violence involving officers.

Moose Jaw Police Chief Rick Bourassa, who is president of the Saskatchewan Association of Chiefs of Police (SACP), said SIRT has been a goal of chiefs for a long time.

"All the chiefs of the province are very pleased. We had been asking for this independent body for quite some time and have worked very closely with the province on its implementation."

Prior to the establishment of SIRT, serious incidents would be investigated by a police force from a different city, with the government providing an independent observer to oversee the case.

"The principle of police investigating the police has always been a bit problematic and it doesn't have the appearance of objectivity and independence, as it should," Bourassa said. "This independent body fits the principle that not only in policing but also across the broader community, people want to know that police are being overseen properly and independently."

Independent investigative units in Alberta and B.C. have called for increased funding in recent months due to heavy caseloads.

Bourassa said that will be on the radar of the SACP.

"We will continue to work with the province to inform those discussions as to if there is a need for more resources, we will certainly be happy to engage in those discussions."

Regina Police Chief Evan Bray said his police service is "really excited" to see SIRT start up.

"We think this is a real positive step forward in terms of oversight for policing in the province. Chiefs have been asking for this sort of oversight, especially those serious incidents where someone is either injured or dies while in police custody."

Bray said he recognizes the public desire for an independent investigative team.

"Police doing those investigations themselves, even if it's a different police agency, often doesn't sit well with the public. Having an independent organization that can do this work, but isn't another police service, is a very positive thing."

"I feel like it's been a long time coming."

Kirk Fraser/CBC
Kirk Fraser/CBC

Bray said the old system also tied up officers.

"That takes a lot of resources, it takes a lot of time. All of our police services are quite strapped with regular work that we're doing in our own jurisdiction. So not having that drain on resources is going to be very positive."

Saskatchewan is the second to last province to implement civilian-led oversight, Bray said the province can learn from others who are more established.

He said chiefs have had meetings with the executive director of SIRT Greg Gudelot since he was hired in 2021. Bray said that should make the transition easier.

Former police oversight head cites 'crying need' for independent body

The former head of Ontario's civilian police investigations unit said the creation of SIRT is overdue.

"It seems to me that there was a crying need for this much before today's date, however, better late than never," said Ian Scott, former director of Ontario's Special Investigations Unit from 2008 to 2013.

"Saskatchewan has had a number of issues with respect to civilians, particularly the First Nation community. Many years ago we had the Stonechild inquiry."

Scott said that in his experience a "large majority of investigations" see no charges laid. He said removing police forces as primary investigators will help.

"Because it really boils down to public confidence in police oversight. You're going to alleviate at least some of that suspicion by having an independent investigative agency."

Scott said of all the investigations done in Ontario, five per cent led to charges. He said in order to "satisfy public interest" at the conclusion of a high-profile case, he ensured a news release explaining "why charges were not laid" was issued.

SIRT is required by Saskatchewan law to post a public summary of investigation results, three months after a case is complete.