Few investigations by civilian law enforcement agencies in Canada lead to charges against officers

Analysis of data from civilian police oversight bodies in Canada shows that most of their investigations do not result in charges against officers.

Charges have been laid or referred to Crown attorneys for review in three to nine percent of cases opened by provincial agencies, according to a review by The Canadian Press of their most recent annual reports largely covering 2018 and 2019.

Seven provinces have independent police oversight bodies that investigate cases of death and serious injury that could be the result of police action or inaction. However, the data was incomplete for some units.

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Erick Laming, a doctoral student at the University of Toronto who studies police use of force and its impacts on Indigenous and Black communities, said the numbers can be interpreted in two ways.

They can be interpreted to mean that watchdogs cast a wide net in their investigations and that in most cases officers have been justified in their use of force. But they can also be seen as proof that agencies are toothless against a legal system that makes it difficult to prosecute agents, he said.

Under the Criminal Code, a police officer is justified in using force during a lawful arrest as long as he is acting on “reasonable and probable grounds and using only force reasonably necessary in the circumstances”.

If they fear for their life or someone else’s and that fear is deemed reasonable, they are usually cleared, he said.

“They have a really long cord when you think about it,” Laming said.

Civilian oversight agencies are relatively new. With the exception of Ontario’s 30-year-old Special Investigations Unit, which closed 416 cases and charged officers in 15 of them in 2018, most have been introduced in the past decade. .

They are a welcome addition to police surveillance, given the alternative sees police or watchdogs from outside jurisdictions conducting investigations, Laming said.

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“When you have another police department investigating that has nothing to do with this area, it’s problematic,” he said.

But agencies aren’t perfect, Laming said. They usually have a high threshold for defining a “serious injury,” so anything that does not end in hospitalization is excluded from investigation, he said.

Using former police officers as investigators is also seen by some as inherently biased, while Laming said they should strive to include more Indigenous, black and other colored investigators.

A review of the Canadian Press revealed that of the 167 members involved in these units, 111 are former police officers.

And only certain agencies are empowered to lay charges themselves, while others can only share the results of their investigations with the Crown, Laming said.

Felix Cacchione, director of the Nova Scotia Serious Incident Response Team, said officers should use a “continuum of force” when responding to a call.

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“The first part of that continuum is to try to reason with the person, to calm them down, to broadcast the situation verbally and then it progresses from there,” he said.

Cacchione’s team recorded the highest charge rate among provincial units, with four charges laid in 44 cases opened in 2018-19. Charges made up nine percent of all cases opened that year – although charges were laid in 22 percent of the cases that led to investigations.

“If a peace officer or person assisting a peace officer is in a situation that presents a threat of serious bodily harm, then that peace officer or person assisting him or her may use as much force as necessary to prevent the threat from becoming a reality, ”he said. noted.

If an officer walks into an empty church and there is a person 12 meters away who is “fuming and delirious” with a knife, that is not enough to justify the use of force, Cacchione said. If the person is two meters away with a butcher’s knife, it is considered a real threat, he said.

Cacchione worked as a criminal defense attorney for decades before taking the job at the civil agency in 2018. He said he was shocked to learn that police training involves targeting the central body mass of ‘a person posing a threat.

“Every time I heard someone get shot six, seven, eight, nine times by a police officer, I was like, well, what’s going on is excessive. Why didn’t they shoot the person in the knee or in the arm? “

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He said he learned that officers were trained this way because they were at risk of missing an arm or a leg. Cacchione remembers seeing an instructor with a timer order an officer to shoot the central body mass three times, then twice on the head for a count of three.

“It only takes 2.4 seconds,” he said.

Based on what he learned, Cacchione said he believes there should be greater involvement of mental health workers wherever possible, although there is not always time in dynamic situations.

Adam Palmer, president of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, said there are many levels of oversight in Canada, ranging from police boards for municipal forces to complaints commissioners and other bodies.

He would welcome the introduction of civilian oversight bodies for incidents of death or serious injury in jurisdictions that do not yet have them, he said.

“I’m definitely in favor of this,” said Palmer, who is also the Vancouver Police Department chief of police.

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Data from the British Columbia Independent Investigations Office shows that the Palmer Police Department was investigated 30 times last year, a significant number compared to other British Columbia forces.

Although Vancouver, with a population of 630,000, is slightly larger than Surrey with 520,000, Palmer attributed the high number of incidents to Vancouver’s role as a central city that is a destination for people of all ages. region, rather than training or driving officers.

In the vast majority of cases, officers were not charged and Palmer said this shows they were operating legally.

No one wants to see someone injured during an interaction with the police, but it is unrealistic to expect this to be entirely preventable, he said.

“Sometimes to get in there and save someone’s life or help someone in need, you have to use physical force,” he said. “Not all cases will be defused. “

Harsha Walia, executive director of the BC Civil Liberties Association, said police oversight would not need to be reviewed if there was a broader change to reduce the scope and scale of departments, including including removing mental health appeals from their warrants.

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“It is clear that we need other solutions,” she added.

When officers are involved in a violent incident, they should be held to higher standards than other citizens, Walia said.

“There have to be different standards in place depending on the power dynamics,” she said.

Crown charge rate or referrals by police oversight bodies

Seven provinces have civilian oversight bodies that investigate incidents of death, serious injury or sexual assault that could be caused by police action or inaction. The rest depend on police services or watch dogs from other jurisdictions.

Here are the charge or referral rates to the Crown from their most recent annual reports or online data. In some cases, units did not specify whether the charges related to a case opened in the same year or a previous year.


The Special Investigations Unit closed 416 cases in 2018. No reasonable grounds for accusation were found in 229 cases and 172 cases were cleared because they were outside the jurisdiction of the watchdog, for example. , because the injuries were not considered “serious” or the injury had nothing to do with the officer.

Fifteen investigations resulted in charges, representing 3.6% of all cases opened or 6% of investigations completed.

The number of cases closed includes events from the previous year that were closed in 2018 and does not include cases that remained open at the end of 2018.


The Independent Bureau of Investigations began investigating 127 police-related incidents in 2018-19 and closed 101 of the cases while 26 investigations were ongoing. Of the 101 cases closed, three were referred to the Crown because the watchdog believed there was a likelihood of conviction, at a rate of about three percent.

Six other cases were also referred to the Crown based on investigations initiated in previous years.


Out of the 75 notifications that the Independent Investigations Unit received in 2018-2019, the unit assumed jurisdiction over 38 investigations, declined jurisdiction out of 13 and played a monitoring role out of 24. It concluded 26 investigations, two of which resulted in charges for incidents that occurred in 2017 and 2018, for a rate of 7.7% of investigations concluded.


The serious incident response team opened 44 files in 2018-2019. Twenty-five resulted in investigations, of which seven were ongoing.

Four charges were laid in incidents that year, for a rate of nine percent of total cases opened or 22 percent of investigations conducted.

An additional charge was laid in an investigation launched the previous year.


Sixty-eight investigations were opened and eight police officers were charged. Some of the charges were linked to investigations launched in previous years and information was not immediately available on the proportion of the 68 investigations completed during the year.


The 2018-2019 annual report of the watchdog in Quebec shows that 36 of the 43 investigations were still ongoing, while two had been referred to prosecutors.

The previous year, 45 investigations were opened and three were in progress. Three cases were referred to the Crown, however, it is not known in what year the incidents occurred. Thirty-nine probes were discontinued without load recommendations.


The Serious Incident Response Team was established last year and appointed its first director in September. He has yet to post any completed investigations online.

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