Working group proposes ‘transformative’ change in the way policing works

·5 min read

A lawyer representing eight women in a civil case alleging sexual assault by Royal Newfoundland Constabulary officers is disappointed a workplace review released last week doesn’t address issues external to the force.

But Lynn Moore said the report, conducted by Ontario lawyer Harriet Lewis, did contain one “bombshell” — that few in the force seemed surprised the allegations even arose.

“It appears that the safety of the public is not a concern in the report,” said Moore, adding that it was not part of Lewis’s mandate.

But Moore did note a stark contrast between questionnaire respondents when it came to lewd or inappropriate behaviour in the workplace.

Most found it harmless or immature at most, while 35 to 45 per cent had the exact opposite view, that it was a source of toxicity in the work environment.

Female officers make up about 30 per cent of the force.

“The numbers that disagree seem to reflect pretty evenly the number of women that there are,” said Moore.

Moore was also disappointed that answers to a final question on the survey soliciting further concerns were not included.

“So. 77 people wanted her to know something about the workplace, and that hasn’t been included in the report,” she said.

RNC Chief Pat Roche, who was appointed in February, said Tuesday, July 19, he’s aware of the complaints about inappropriate behaviour in the workplace and has zero tolerance for it.

“I think any inappropriate conduct, whether it’s comments or actions identified by whatever the percentage — whether it’s our female members or male members or a combination thereof — is concerning and cannot be tolerated in any way, shape or form,” he told The Telegram.

“Obviously the message is being missed by some.”

Roche said his main focus has been on mental health among members, something the Lewis report also highlighted.

“The stigma surrounding mental health issues is slowly being torn down, and our members and our civilian staff … are more comfortably in coming forward,” he said.

The report was one of two released within a few days of each other, and both portend major changes in the way policing is done in Newfoundland and Labrador.

First Light, an urban Indigenous advocacy group based in St. John’s, released a draft report on police relations Monday.

The report, called Building Trust, has as its central proposal the establishment of a civilian oversight board that would oversee policing by the RNC.

The establishment of arm’s-length civilian oversight was an imperative called for by the National Inquiry on Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls.

Catharine Fagan, chair of the Building Trust working group, told reporters Tuesday she believes the Lewis report actually complements the findings of First Light’s report in several ways, even though Lewis did not specifically endorse the idea of an independent police board.

“Whether it’s racism, sexism, lack of transparency, little or no accountability, poor allocation of resources — these are problems that we have heard about as well and were taken into consideration for our report,” she said, adding that the Indigenous community has been raising the concerns for years.

“We actually think (a board) would solve many of the problems that the Lewis report identified.”

Fagan said a central deficiency in the system is that the chief acts as both the commanding officer of the force as well as the CEO of the RNC as a corporate entity.

“This has led to an awkward relationship with government and really poor accountability to the public,” she said.

The report’s draft proposals, which include streamlining the Public Complaints Commission and improving confidence in the province’s fledgling Serious Incident Response Team (SIRT), are supported by several other agencies, including the St. John’s Status of Women’s Council and the provincial Human Rights Commission.

Moore says lack of civilian oversight is part of the reason her clients have opted for a civil suit rather than criminal.

Unfortunately, she said, the SIRT will not assist in a public complaint unless it’s investigated as criminal case.

“It seems to me that a lot of people, women in particular, are turning away from the criminal justice system, finding that it is further traumatizing and not helpful,” she said.

“I think that civilian oversight of the police is really lacking.”

She called the complaints process “complicated and convoluted.”

First, the chief is the one who initially oversees a complaint, and then there may be public discipline proceedings that the chief presides over. The chief’s decision in the case can be appealed by the complainant or by the officer.

“If there are problems with the investigation, they might very well be incurable at that stage,” said Moore.

“We definitely need to rethink the way that we handle police misconduct. And I think the SIRT is just a tinkering with the problem.”

Fagan said distrust of police by the Indigenous community is a long-established problem.

“The lack of confidence is real and it’s deep, particularly in Black-Indigenous communities,” she said.

For his part, Roche said Tuesday the First Light report is a draft, and it would be inappropriate for him to comment on matters of civilian oversight.

But Fagan says her group is inviting feedback from all interested parties over the next couple of months.

They plan to release a final report in the fall, and would work closely with the provincial Justice department in the process.

“Nothing that’s this historically grounded changes overnight,” she said, “but sometimes you need transformative change to do that, and we thing this is some of that.”

Online: firstlightnl.ca

Feedback: policing@firstlightnl.ca

Peter Jackson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Telegram

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