Police Investigating Police: A Critical Examination and Recommendations for Improvement

Posted: December 2, 2011 by pgardiner in Police Investigating Police
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Globally, spanning countless jurisdictions, there has been public outcry concerning whether or not it is responsible to allow the continuation of police investigations into internal affairs. Police deviance and issues arising related to accountability of officers today, are relevant to society in general. It is the duty of the police to serve and protect the communities in which they are employed in, and therefore, it is of utmost importance that the police instill a sense of confidence within the citizens that they are trained and contracted to defend. 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.

According to Section 37 of the RCMP Act, members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police operate in accordance to six core values: “integrity, honesty, professionalism, compassion, respect and accountability” (Section 37 RCMP Act) and although ethics and good moral standards are classified as highly regarded, it is definitely apparent that in many circumstances these values are thrown out the window. In such cases, and especially in cases involving death or assaults and injury, an outside police force is called upon to investigate the events that took place. Herein arises the conflict of interest. It would be unrealistic to assume that members of the same association could be expected to carry out a completely unbiased examination of other members, when the very organization they both belong to prides itself on stressing loyalty among colleagues. In order to protect one another, police investigating police rarely expose the real details of an incident to the public (Haubin). 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. With further progress and civilian participation, Canada can work towards engaging in practices beneficial to both police and society.

Due to the integral role policing plays in democratic societies nationwide, it is crucial that citizens critically examine practices employed by law enforcement. As stated above, the function of law enforcement is to benefit general society, and with that comes the requirement for assurance of accountability and transparency. In order to maintain communities that function democratically, it is imperative that all citizens are involved in or able to participate in influencing policy and supervision. If police policy (and incidents) go unchecked and unmonitored by regular citizens, law enforcement power far exceeds a safe and responsible level. Democratic practice requires the participation of citizens and extends to all aspects of society and government, policing included. Should police be privileged with being removed from the standard democratic supervision of citizens, gateways will open and flood with vast opportunities for corrupt and deviant actions to be performed and go unnoticed. Absolute power proves to have dangerous consequences, and without some oversight from community members, formerly democratic societies are liable to slowly evaporate and in turn be replaced with police states.

Central to the necessity of creating accountable law enforcement, it is greatly significant that the members of the oversight bodies whom police officers are accountable to, similarly, act responsible to democratic process. Members within the oversight bodies such as the SIRT teams, SIUs, or the newly created IIOs must be screened by some method to ensure that they themselves are free of biases and hidden, personal agendas. It would be extremely counter-productive and cost the oversight bodies their reputation of legitimacy if members within were found to be making their recommendations on the basis of strong preconceptions and working towards veiled goals of their own. Preconceived bias brings up the issue of former law enforcement participating within said ‘civilian’ oversight bodies and whether or not this is appropriate given the original purpose of these organizations. It is difficult to fully determine whether or not former officers would be capable of performing investigations on current law enforcement without acting with some partiality; the critique being that loyalty to ‘the brotherhood’ does not simply end upon an officer’s resignation or retirement. Once oversight bodies are formed with members who seem to possess all necessary attributes, the voluntary participation of other citizens who desire to be involved in the process of investigation of law enforcement, should to an extent, be permitted. Perhaps, in order to maintain the definition of a democratic state, members of society who may not have been educated or with enough background experience to sit on the oversight board itself, could be involved in a voting process based on several options recommended by the SIRT teams or SIUs. Regardless of whether or not the use of a voting system be used in some cases, the formation of civilian lead oversight bodies encourages citizens to report and respond to issues concerning police deviance; corruption; and brutality, as members of society will be more comfortable and apt to approach other members of society regarding their concerns.

Currently, although the Commission for Public Complaints against the RCMP operates in a ‘similar’ function to that of the SIRT teams and SIUs, there is concern for how seriously the organization takes complaints made by the average citizen. Despite the CPC’s claim that “anyone who has a concern about the on-duty conduct of an RCMP member” ’s ability to make a complaint, it is troubling to further examine the literature that outlines the discretion at which the Commission can either pursue or sweep under the rug, issues brought to their attention. According to the CPC, issues that do not fall under the jurisdiction of concerns intended to be subject to their investigation, as deemed by Parliament, the following are not the CPC’s responsibility and will be redirected back to the RCMP for examination: “administration of the affairs of the force” such as: “delays in processing of fingerprints, …criminal record checks,…[and] processing of a pardon”. Additionally, in order to commence the process of a formal complaint, the CPC writes up said concern, and sends it to the RCMP for investigation, who then also have the discretion of deciding whether or not any issues brought to their attention require further investigation. Based on the following criteria, if a complaint falls under one or more of the subsequent categories, the RCMP reserves the right to refuse investigation:

  1. If the complaint is considered trivial, frivolous, or vexatious;
  2. If it can better be dealt with under another Act of Parliament; or
  3. If the RCMP deems that an investigation is not necessary under the circumstances. (CPC, 2011)

Essentially, despite the CPC’s role as an oversight body of the RCMP, members of the RCMP are pivotal in determining the ultimate outcome of a complaint lodged. This begs the question: how is this process even remotely legitimate in its attempts to maintain police accountability to a separate organization?

Furthermore, with the development of additional SIRT teams and SIUs, increases in funding must be implemented in order to ensure the most thorough of investigations as possible. Limited funding of such programs severely inhibits the extent to which investigators are capable of examining serious incidents, and in turn, the most accurate result of the investigation may not in due course, be reached. Investigations are often lengthy and costly, therefore, restricted resources and funding significantly impact the correctness of the outcomes attained. Another crucial aspect of accurate investigations involves the issue of doctoring police notes before they reach the hands of the civilian investigators, and thanks to the recent decision of the Ontario Court of Appeals, officers are no longer permitted to have lawyers “shape and refine the finished product” of notes before they reach both the courts and the public (Tyler). Prohibiting the manipulation of these notes leads to better assurance and confidence by citizens that the notes more accurately portray the events leading up to the investigation, which better guarantees opportunity for a realistic assessment of each situation.

As law enforcement oversight bodies develop and evolve, the above aspects must be taken into account. The vitality of these organizations is dependent upon members who must be both unbiased in their decision-making and passionate about seeking the truth in order to better society’s welfare. In addition to the above recommendations, members of the oversight bodies must be representative of the nation or state, which they are serving; members must be of varying age groups, cultural backgrounds, ethnicities and sexes to embody the diverse perspectives of the Canadian population and societies. Furthermore, members must be educated to some extent to prevent ignorant decision or recommendation making. By increasing transparency and extending the openness of investigation process to all members of society, democratic process is honored and citizens become more confident in the accountability of the police.


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.

Commission for Public Complaints Against the RCMP. “”Frequently Asked Questions.” Commission for Public Complaints Against the RCMP. Government of Canada., Aug. 2010. Web. 1 December 2011.

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

Government of Alberta. “Alberta Serious Incident Response Team (ASIRT).” Government of Alberta. 2011. Web. 1 December 2011.

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

Government of Ontario. “Special Investigations Unit.” Queen’s Printer for Ontario. 25 July 2011. Web. 1 December 2011.

Haubin. “It’s Wrong to Have Police Investigate Police Shootings.” The Montreal Gazette 26 July 2007. Web. 28 September 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.

Tyler, Tracey. “Lawyers Can’t Vet Officer’s Notes in SIU Cases, Court Rules.” Toronto Star. 15 Nov 2011. Web. 1 December 2011.

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