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News Room – Inside the Winnipeg Police Service


Why Won't You Tell Us?

By Chief Devon Clunis,
Winnipeg Police Service

Chief Devon Clunis, Winnipeg Police ServiceApril 15, 2015 - Do police officers hide behind a blue wall of silence when police conduct is in question? Why does it take so long for police to share the details and outcomes of investigations with the media and the public? Have you ever wondered this yourself, or heard someone ask these questions?  These questions and others are often directed at police organizations in the aftermath of events that attract public attention.

Let’s be clear, police officers and agencies are accountable to the public and there must be transparency on matters of public interest. Let’s also be clear that not every matter is in the public interest, and that there are legal and regulatory guidelines that must be followed in relation to disclosure.  The Winnipeg Police Service is often the subject of criticism for a perceived failing to either not disclose information to the public, or to not disclose it in a timely manner.

Those expressing this opinion often do so without an understanding of the process that is involved in conducting investigations, and the legislative framework which governs the Winnipeg Police Service. Understanding the realities faced by the Winnipeg Police Service in these types of situations is important to answer these important questions.

Investigations into potential misconduct, whether police or civilian, are governed by the Winnipeg Police Service Regulations. The Regulations are a By-law of the City of Winnipeg passed by Council. The Regulations set out a process containing a number of steps that must be taken in the conduct of an investigation. The situation may be complicated, as while investigations may start as either criminal or regulatory, their status may change as the investigation unfolds and evidence is gathered. The Professional Standards Unit is staffed with specially trained investigators that are sensitive to these investigations, and that are tasked with the conduct of investigations involving complaints against Winnipeg Police Service members.

A Regulations investigation begins with a complaint which must be made within 30 days of the incident, although the Chief of Police may extend that time to six months.  The complaint is reviewed and if an investigation is warranted it is sent to the Professional Standards Unit.  The Professional Standards Unit then conducts the investigation, which includes the collection of all reports, interviews of witnesses, gathering of evidence, and writing the report. Forensic testing may be required and, depending on the nature of the tests and whether they are done by the Winnipeg Police Service or another agency, this may result in months of waiting for results.

The report of the Professional Standards Unit investigators is then subject to two levels of review to determine that all investigative steps have been completed and that the investigation has been thorough and unbiased. The report is then reviewed by the Commander in charge of the Professional Standards Unit who determines whether the complaint is founded or not, or whether the incident resulted from a failure of policy or training.

Where it is the opinion of the Commander that the member’s conduct was improper the file is then reviewed by a Review Panel of three Senior Officers, who determine whether a Service Default has been committed, and if so, recommends an appropriate penalty. The decision of the Review Panel is communicated to the member who may choose to respond.
 
If the member contests the disciplinary default or penalty a hearing is scheduled before the Discipline Panel which is made up of a Deputy Chief and two Senior Officers.  The Regulations provide that the member is entitled to counsel throughout this process.  All hearings before the Discipline Panel are required to be held in camera.  If the Discipline Panel finds the member committed the alleged disciplinary default they impose one of the penalties permitted under the Regulations.  The matter can then be appealed by the member’s association to an arbitrator. An arbitration hearing is open to the public.

Investigations into serious incidents are often sent for review to an outside police agency, which reviews all of the material to determine whether the investigation is complete and unbiased. Those investigations are also usually sent for further review to Manitoba Justice.  If the outside agency or Manitoba Justice note deficiencies further investigation is conducted.  In the case of police shootings and other in custody deaths the file is always sent for outside review by both another police agency and Manitoba Justice.   All of this is time consuming and outside the Winnipeg Police Service’s control, but it ensures that the report is considered objectively and without Winnipeg Police Service influence.

The Winnipeg Police Service also needs to ensure that the investigation of its members, whether criminal or regulatory, does not compromise any other investigation. The conduct which initiated the complaint is often related to an investigation of another criminal complaint.   The Winnipeg Police Service must always balance the original investigation with that of the investigation into the conduct of the member to ensure that neither is compromised. This becomes particularly sensitive when the criminal investigation is ongoing and the release of information about the Professional Standards Unit investigation may impair the ability of the assigned investigators to conduct the investigation into the criminal activity.

Even where the investigation determines that the incident resulted from a policy failure and not member misconduct, the Winnipeg Police Service must make the necessary changes to ensure that the policy gap does not contribute to another incident.

The Winnipeg Police Service received almost 440,000 calls last year and ensuring that policy change effectively addresses the issue at hand without causing problems in another area can be challenging.  Any change to policy is assessed and studied by content experts and analysts who may make hundreds of policy changes every year, due to internal and external factors.
 
The Winnipeg Police Service is a public body governed by The Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act which restricts the release and use of third party information. Witnesses and other parties involved in an incident are entitled to have their personal information protected in accordance with The Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act. This, as well as other privacy legislation, may impact whether information can be released, and the timing of the release of any information.

The Winnipeg Police Service is like every other employer in that it has a responsibility to its employees. Think of your own workplace and assume your employer believes you have done something wrong.  They have conducted an investigation and may or may not have heard your side of the events.  Despite the fact that there has been no independent determination of what happened your employer releases details of what they believe occurred along with your name.  Such action would be unfair to you and contrary to the basic principles of justice – the right to be innocent until proven otherwise, and the right to a fair and unbiased hearing.

The issue of releasing information is often not a refusal to provide information but a refusal to provide the information at the time it is requested.  The Winnipeg Police Service is obligated to wait until the time is right in all of the circumstances. Ultimately, there may be legislative or other restrictions which prevent the release of some information.

The Winnipeg Police Service takes seriously its responsibility to maintain public safety while acting in an open, honest, and trustworthy manner.  In doing so it must balance a number of, at times, conflicting interests in the context of complex legislation. In the end, the real question is whether you are provided with sufficient information to determine whether you can maintain your trust in the actions of the Winnipeg Police Service and its members.  The Winnipeg Police Service is committed to ensuring that you do.

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