Quebec police forces have come under fire recently in light of the crisis brewing in Val D’Or. Sûreté du Québec officers have been accused of harassing native women in the area for over a decade, engaging in such heinous behaviors as beatings and sexual assault and harassment.
Not surprisingly, the native communities in the area have had enough and are now demanding that their abusers be held accountable for their actions. The magnitude of the crisis and its ensuing strain on First Nations’ and Government officials has been so great that Quebec Public Safety Minister Lise Thériault has taken a leave of absence for health reasons.
The First Nations are fed up with being abused by the police and they are demanding a public inquiry, detailed investigations into the deaths of aboriginal women, and most importantly given the circumstances, the removal of the eight officers under investigation for these allegations, at least until a conclusion is reached regarding their guilt or innocence. These officers are still currently working in the area.
The demands of the Native leaders look like reasonable ways of reducing racial profiling and protecting the most vulnerable people in Val D’Or. However, holding officers accountable in Quebec is extremely difficult.
In Quebec, police forces are regulated under the Police Act (the Act) and the Code of Ethics of Quebec Police Officers (the Code).
Police officers have to obey the law like everyone else. The problem arises with what happens if they do something they shouldn’t when acting as a police officer.
The Code dictates that officers must act in such a way that preserves “the confidence and consideration” required by their duties and cannot use abusive language, be disrespectful or impolite, and more importantly they can’t “commit acts or use injurious language based on race, colour, sex, sexual orientation, religion, political convictions, language, age, social condition, civil status, pregnancy, ethnic or national origin, a handicap or a means to compensate for a handicap” (article 5). They can’t use greater force than necessary to perform their duties of maintaining peace and public security, nor can they harass, intimidate, threaten, or bring unfounded charges against anyone, things Quebec police forces have been accused of for decades.
How are complaints against police handled?
Quebec’s Police Ethics Commissioner is chosen from among members of the Quebec Bar Association and answers to the Provincial Government. The rules for lodging and handling complaints are suspicious at best and seem to be geared towards protecting officers, not victims. Some of these questionable rules and practices include:
- Referring the complaint to an “appropriate police force” for the purposes of a criminal investigation if a crime might have been committed.
- Complaints regarding police ethics expire one year after the date of the event or knowledge of the event that resulted in the complaint.
- The complainant and the police officer or officers involved in the complaint must participate and be present at conciliation proceedings. The conciliator is designated by the Commissioner.
- Once a solution is found and both the complainant and the police officer(s) involved sign the settlement, the complaint is deemed withdrawn and will never appear in the personal record of the officer(s) involved.
- Quebec’s Police Ethics Commissioner can decide not to investigate a complaint if he or she decides the complaint “frivolous, vexatious or made in bad faith” or if he or she decides no further investigation is necessary.
- At the end of an investigation into a complaint, the Commissioner can choose to dismiss the complaint for being frivolous, vexatious, has no foundation in law, or due to lack of evidence. The Commissioner can also decide at the end of an investigation whether or not to report an officer to the Police Ethics Committee for discipline, and whether or not to refer the case to the Director of Criminal and Penal Prosecutions.
If you were wronged by a police officer it’s only natural that the organization he works for is going to do its best to protect him. That’s why referring a complaint to a police force looks like a perfect way to create bias in favor of the officer(s).
There is currently no independent force working to investigate complaints regarding criminal acts committed by police officers. Though an independent bureau was created last year and the government has even named its director, the bureau isn’t operating yet and the Commissioner has an awful lot of discretion whether or not to investigate or even accept a complaint. Too much unchecked discretion has historically proven to be a bad thing.
The one year expiration date of the right to lodge a complaint is extremely problematic given that the victims of crimes like sexual assault have difficulty coming forward due to the stigma involved. It’s especially problematic given that proceedings require the presence of both parties. Anyone who’s been sexually assaulted knows how difficult it is to face your attacker.
The fact that a settlement will result in the complaint being removed from the officer’s personal record seems like too much of a free pass for the offender. The fact that a settlement is reached in a given situation doesn’t mean that a complaint was unfounded and should be withdrawn. It often just means that the victim doesn’t want any more trouble. A more sensible rule would be to let the severity of the act determine how long the complaint stays in an officer’s file.
Until the rules are changed to reflect a more common sense approach to how the police are policed, Canada’s most vulnerable people will have to watch their backs. If they have to watch their backs to prevent abuse from the very people sworn to protect them, we seriously need to rethink how we train our police forces, and actually hold them to their obligation to act in an ethical way thus ensuring the confidence of the people they serve.