Saskatchewan is among four Canadian provinces that don’t have an independent police oversight body to investigate police-involved deaths.

In most provinces, a completely independent oversight body will step in to investigate when an officer is believed to have killed or seriously injured someone.

The oldest is the Special Investigations Unit (SIU) in Ontario, established in 1990. It’s called in to investigate any time a regional, municipal or provincial police officer has been involved in a serious injury incident, death or allegation of sexual assault.

“The public can maintain confidence in police services by ensuring citizens that police actions resulting in serious injury or death are subjected to rigorous investigations by an independent body,” said Monica Hudon, a spokesperson for SIU.

With Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick and Newfoundland and Labrador in talks to establish a regional investigative team, Saskatchewan could soon be the only province without an independent police watchdog.

When a civilian dies at the hands of a police officer in Saskatchewan, the police service is mandated to call the Ministry of Justice, which will then appoint an independent investigation observer.

“The role of that observer is to observe the investigation, make sure it’s conducted appropriately and according to investigation principles, and then file a report back with the deputy minister of justice,” said Drew Wilby, with the Ministry of Justice.

But there aren’t any rules around who must conduct the investigation. Usually another police service will lead it, but the practice isn’t legally required .

“Often what will happen and what’s allowed for under the Police Act is for another police service to come in and conduct that investigation — just again to create a level of separation. That’s not a requirement of the Act, but it is allowed for under that and most often we’ll see that be the case,” Wilby said.

If a person isn’t satisfied with an investigation, they can file a complaint with the province’s Public Complaints Commission, but it can’t lay charges and its findings are rarely made public.

‘The police police the police’

Recent inquests have renewed calls for Saskatchewan to adopt an independent police oversight body, similar to other provinces.

In December, following the inquest into Brydon Whitstone’s death, the 22-year-old’s family and the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations (FSIN) highlighted the need for this change.

“We cannot have the police continuing to investigate themselves and clear themselves of any wrongdoings in these types of incidents,” said FSIN Vice-Chief Edward Lerat in a news conference following the Whitstone inquest.

Whitstone was shot by a North Battleford RCMP officer following a short police chase the night of Oct. 21, 2017. Following the incident, the Regina Police Service was called in to investigate and it determined no charges should be laid.

There were similar calls following the inquest into Jordan Lafond’s death. The 21-year-old died from blunt-force trauma to the head after being forcefully arrested following a police chase in Saskatoon, where eventually crashed into a fence.

In the inquest, a pathologist testified he wasn’t sure if Lafond died from the crash or by the officer’s use of force during the arrest. The inquest also heard Saskatoon Major Crimes investigated the two Saskatoon police officers who used force on Lafond. No charges were laid.

“This family and other members of the Indigenous community do not trust the Saskatoon Police Service,” said the family’s lawyer, Chris Murphy, the final day of the inquest.

Murphy questioned the investigation, specifically referring to the internal investigation process in Saskatchewan as “the police police the police.”

‘You’re scared, but you go back to your training’

Marlo Pritchard is Weyburn’s police chief and the president of the Saskatchewan Association of Chiefs of Police. He also spent 12 and half years as a member of Regina Police Service’s SWAT team.

“When it gets to the point when you’re pointing a firearm — which a lot of officers have, including myself — you’re not thinking about the follow up, you’re dealing with that situation right now and to control that situation,” Pritchard said.

“It’s very dynamic. At that point in time there’s emotions going and from a personal experience you’re scared, but you go back to your training.”

While officers are trained to deescalate a situation, there are times when an officer will have to use force.

“Police officers are given a lot of authority, and with that authority comes responsibility,” Pritchard said.

“Part of that responsibility is having an oversight body, oversight people, looking at your actions. Hopefully your training and your thinking — you’ve followed policies and procedures — and you’ve done everything right, but if not, then there are consequences to it. We expect a lot from our officers. We always have.”

Calls for review of current model

Pritchard believes the current model for police-involved deaths works, but is open to change.

“Is it a fair process? It is right now, but is it the best process? It’s hard to say,” said Pritchard.

“I think we’ve put in at least all we can do right now without some legislative changes. Again, it’s all about public confidence, and we want to make sure that the public confidence is there. If the public is saying that our current model is not sufficient, not adequate, than we need to change it.”

He said the Saskatchewan Association of Chiefs of Police would like to see a review of the current model to see where it could be improved.

“If it does need to be changed, then let’s get a model that fits for what the public needs or Saskatchewan needs, and if it doesn’t, at least we’ve done that review to make sure that it’s meeting the interests of both the public and the police,” he said.

Wilby said the government is always monitoring what other provinces are doing, however overhauling the current model isn’t on the province’s agenda.

“I think at this point, in Saskatchewan, the model is working,” said Wilby.

“I would suggest that if we are going to make change, we need to make change for the better and not just change for change sake, and make sure that if we were to implement a new model, it would work better than the current model that we have in place.”