Police Investigating Police: Civilian Oversight Aids Societal Unity

Posted: November 9, 2011 by pgardiner in Police Investigating Police
Tags: , , ,

Due to increasing exposure of police deviance, it is critical that society be aware of the ever-present issue concerning police accountability. Although police forces maintain an assurance of transparency when carrying out internal investigations, the method of ‘police investigating police’ remains controversial, as it is unclear as to whether solidarity and loyalty ultimately determine the fate of such inquiries. Citizens are often left wondering if the blue wall of silence is responsible for purposeful ignorance when the police conduct investigations of other forces. This lack of confidence leaves many members of society disillusioned regarding the police’s competence to investigate deviance within the organization. Police investigating police leads to issues concerning the authenticity and seriousness of such examinations, and therefore relates to many other broader themes involving deviance and accountability.

The RCMP and other police forces pride themselves on being privileged with membership to an exclusive organization that holds the authority to withhold certain secrecies from the general public. However, due to this solidarity, the resultant silence creates a universal unease among citizens. Many commonly feel that should law enforcement be required to examine deviance among one another, the consequent investigation would not be performed under the same scrutiny used in investigations of non-law enforcement. Such methods would be employed in order to prevent tarnishing the reputation of police. This ‘blissful ignorance’ accounts for the blue wall of silence, and serves to protect the reputation of deviant officers as opposed to serving to protect society. In a democratic country such as Canada, it is pertinent that an unbiased civilian body be designated to participate in evaluating police in situations involving police deviance, as this practice leads to better confidence in law enforcement and an overall sense of wellbeing concerning “protection from undemocratic events” (Hryniewicz, 82).

The initial problem encountered with police investigating police tends to be presented as civilians’ perceptions that police conducting the investigations will lend more sympathy to the police officer(s) in question than to the citizen raising a complaint. It is expected that police will let the improper actions of other officers slide, due to their pledge of loyalty to one another, and in turn, virtually disregard legitimate concerns of civilians. This series of beliefs and perceptions, holds especially true for marginalized citizens, who “do not have confidence [in]…nor [accessibility]…to an oversight body” (Hryniewicz, 79) and feel that the system ‘lacks credibility’. Many victims of police deviance or improper conduct feel that they may be subjected to retaliation should they report an event. This complete disbelief in the competence of officers’ abilities to investigate one another requires that civilian lead response teams are employed for police investigation, in order to restore confidence in police and generate a stronger sense of democracy and societal unity. Although members of society such as Aboriginal Peoples, the impoverished and minorities often feel as if they are swept aside in political process, engaging all citizens in a public mechanism to aid in investigation of social issues promotes equality of all and “a desire for common security and protection” (Hryniewicz, 80).

Furthermore, lack of objectivity continues to be a factor in concern toward police investigating police. The RCMP and police forces function as organizations that promote brotherhood and loyalty. Citizens express significant concern on a regular basis regarding the objectivity officers act with when investigating other members. During the Braidwood Inquiry into the Robert Dziekanski death at YVR, even certain members of the RCMP recognized that in such convoluted cases, internal investigation becomes a conflict of interest for both the police and the public. As Supt. Rideout stated, “[The police] were asked to do a very difficult job…we shouldn’t be doing this…time for an SIU (Special Investigations Unit) in this province.” Following this statement and the Braidwood Inquiry, the proposal for a civilian based investigative body included a mandate that stated the “serious injury or death of an individual involving an RCMP employee or when it appears that an employee of the RCMP may have contravened a provision of the Criminal Code or other statute and the matter is of a serious or sensitive nature” prompts the requisition for an external investigation (Braidwood Inquiry, Part 10). The measures proposed in the Braidwood Inquiry serve as an example of methods to improve and eliminate the issue of lack of impartiality in investigations.

Due to such inquiries and the pressing issue of the practice of internal investigation, some changes have been implemented in the various accountability systems in order to correct and restore the confidence of the public. Civilian lead response teams do operate out of several provinces currently in Canada, and function to provide an unbiased examination into events relevant to police deviance, misconduct and crime. Serious Incident Response Teams (SIRT teams) currently operate out of Alberta, Nova Scotia and Ontario. In addition, according to the recommendations of the Braidwood Inquiry, BC Legislature created an “Independent Investigation Office”, whose goal is reflective of the ambition of the SIRT teams. Such bodies recognize that “Cops protect Cops…[and that] it is a problem of human nature, identity, and social conditioning” (Pivot). The shared motivation of these various Special Investigations Units is to encourage “civilian oversight as a public good” (Hryniewicz, 79), an oversight mechanism that functions to not only protect society, but actively involve citizens in processes of investigation. The Final Public Report for Police Investigating Police from the Commission for Public Complaints Against the RCMP defines the current police oversight and review models within Canada, and further breaks down the methods by which police investigate police. The CPC Final Report breaks down the models into dependent, interdependent and independent and further discusses the specifics of each, in order to categorize and explain the differences between police investigating police and the civilian oversight bodies.

Although improvements have been made such as the  creation of civilian lead investigation bodies and the SIRT teams, the system still has ample room for further upgrading. The inquiries and recommendations are valuable to perfecting the system, although as stated earlier, the police organization is fraught with officers whose natures passively accept that deviance and improper behavior occurs, and is basically required in order to successfully complete job tasks, and therefore, unless issues of deviance are brought into the open, they will continue to occur in the background, unchecked by anyone and shielded from the public by colleagues. The promising prospect of increasing exposure of unacceptable behavior will continue to allow for further citizen review. However, the citizens appointed to such investigative bodies must be truly unbiased and not secretly harbor personal agendas in order for the oversight mechanisms to function properly. In conclusion, with further progress and civilian participation, Canada will work towards engaging in practices beneficial to both police and society.


Braidwood, Thomas. “Braidwood Inquiry.” Braidwood Inquiry 20 May 2010. Web. 27 October 2011.

CBC News. “New Civilian Agency to Probe Police Incidents in BC.” CBC News 17 May 2011. Web. 27 October 2011.

Commission for Public Complaints Against the RCMP. “Police Investigating Police – Final Public Report.” Commission for Public Complaints Against the RCMP. Government of Canada., Aug. 2009. Web. 27 October 2011.

Doug. “Reading Into the New Independent Investigations Office (IIO).” Pivot Legal 18 May 2011. Web. 27 October 2011.

Government of Nova Scotia. “Serious Incident Response Team.” Government of Nova Scotia 28 Sept. 2011. Web. 27 October 2011.

Hryniewicz, Danielle. “Civilian Oversight as Public Good: Democratic Policing, Civilian Oversight and the Social.” Contemporary Justice Review March 2011, Vol. 14 Issue 1. Web. 27 October 2011.

Punch, Maurice. “Police Corruption – Deviance, Accountability and Reform in Public Policing.” Portland: Willan Publishing, 2009.

Strudwick, Katie. “Is Independence the Only Answer to Complainants’ Satisfaction of the Police Complaints Process? A Perspective from the United Kingdom.” Practice and Research March 2003, Vol. 4 Issue 1. Web. 27 October 2011.

  1. Mike Larsen says:

    This is an informative post.

    In your conclusion, you note that steps need to be taken to ensure that persons appointed to a civilian investigative body are unbiased. I agree that this important. Minimizing prejudice in any accountability body is important. However, the legitimacy of such a body is only partially dependent upon the character and work of its personnel. We could also say that it is also dependent upon public perceptions that the organization is independent, transparent, and empowered to carry out its mandate.

    I wonder if you could talk about these points.

    Specifically, what constitutes transparency? Also, what powers should a civilian investigative body have?

  2. Mike Larsen says:

    Of interest: The Ontario Court of Appeal has just issued an important decision regarding police oversight by the SIU. The Toronto Star reports that the substance of the decision is that “Police officers involved in fatal shootings and other serious incidents are not permitted to have a lawyer vet or help prepare their notes before they’re turned over to the Special Investigations Unit”. The article can be found here: http://www.thestar.com/news/crime/article/1087268–lawyers-can-t-vet-officers-notes-in-siu-cases-court-rules?bn=1 .

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s