Saskatchewan police oversight agency wants to track demographic data on people filing complaints

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second in a series of three stories by Global Regina this week examining the role of and challenges faced by Saskatchewan’s Public Complaints Commission as the government moves to modernize the existing policing oversight model in the province. Read Part 1 here.

The agency responsible for investigating complaints against municipal police officers in Saskatchewan wants to learn more about the people who are expressing concerns in an attempt to better understand its growing workload.

Public Complaints Commission (PCC) chair Brent Cotter said the agency is considering changes to its submission form to allow people to disclose information about their background.

“There is certainly, I would call it, strong anecdotal evidence that people from minority communities generate more complaints than they may be the proportion the population,” Cotter told Global News. “I think there’s a good argument to say that more comprehensive information to the extent that complainants wish to disclose their ancestry would help us understand that question better.”

The challenge is that the PCC’s budget is still about $650,000, just like it was five years ago.

While Cotter would like to see the changes to the form as soon as April, the agency is grappling with a record-high number of complaints and too few investigators. He said if resourcing continues at this level, it would be very difficult for the PCC to tackle data collection and planning issues.

In a statement, Saskatchewan’s Ministry of Justice said it is reviewing the models of other Canadian jurisdictions and engaging in conversations with police services across the province to “determine what improvements can be made.”

 ‘Legitimate recommendation’

Other jurisdictions have already begun tracking this type of information.

Ontario Justice Michael Tulloch’s 2016 Independent Police Oversight Review in that province recommended collecting demographic data, a practice that has slowly been coming into play over the years that have followed.

“I think it’s actually a legitimate recommendation,” Cotter said.

University of Toronto PhD candidate Erick Laming, whose criminology studies focus on police oversight and minority communities, said there is very little research to tap into regarding people who are filing complaints.

“The fact that we just don’t have definitive numbers on how many people complain every year in terms of the demographic characteristics, that’s a concern from the public perspective,” Laming said.

“If you’re just honest about it, then you can have a real conversation about how to improve if improving is necessary,” he said, citing the Toronto Police Service, now grappling with ways to strengthen racial relations in that city.

Identifying patterns

Part of the PCC’s job in Saskatchewan is to identify patterns of police behavior.

“We do have a dimension regarding planning and analysis that we struggle to get to because of the resourcing,” Cotter said.

The data the PCC has been able to track has guided new training for police officers in the province.

Between 2014 and 2019, the commission noted in annual reports that it was:

“…concerned with the inappropriate exercise of powers of arrest, search and seizure and the entry into homes without authority.”

PCC investigations have revealed municipal police force supervisors were not “sufficiently familiar” with what front-line officers could and could not do, Cotter said.

In response, the Saskatchewan Police College is designing a new block training module to update officers across the province on the limits of their authority.

Being able to inform the police of problematic patterns empowers them to find solutions, Cotter said.

“The result is fewer problematic encounters with citizens, fewer complaints, a healthier relationship between police and the community,” he said. “That’s a really valuable thing for us to be able to contribute to – and we do that to some extent. But with somewhat more resourcing, we could do it better.”

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