REGINA — Saskatchewan plans to make changes to police oversight in the province, but officers would still be investigating each other.
Critics have long called for changes because Saskatchewan is one of the few provinces without an independent watchdog to review serious police actions that result in injury or death.
It's left to police services to investigate themselves while overseen by an independent observer, such as a retired officer, appointed by the Justice Ministry.
The Saskatchewan Party government wants to change that so the Public Complaints Commission, which handles complaints against municipal police members, would choose the observer. That person could be a civilian and not a former officer.
If a person killed or injured by police were Indigenous, a second observer who is also Indigenous would have to be appointed.
Justice Minister Don Morgan said Wednesday the change means that when a serious police incident happens, the commission would be informed and determine if it can handle the case internally. If it can't, he said, someone else would be assigned, including other police officers.
"The ultimate responsibility for it does not rest with the police officers that are doing the investigation," Morgan added.
"The ultimate responsibility for it will now rest with the (commission), who will be responsible to make sure that the officers are not biased, that they're reporting frequently."
Alberta, Manitoba, Ontario, Nova Scotia, British Columbia and Quebec have separate agencies to handle investigations such as in-custody deaths or injuries.
Morgan said having a separate investigative unit in a province the size of Saskatchewan would be costly.
"A model like they do in Ontario or Alberta is expensive. ... It becomes a matter of creating another police force."
The ministry also said online summaries of an investigation would have to be published, and an observer's role would include looking into allegations of sexual assault and incidents involving off-duty officers.
Morgan said the legislative changes would improve police accountability and that steps to enhance it further will be considered.
The Opposition NDP said the complaints commission is already overwhelmed with the amount of complaints it receives.
"It really looks like a half-measure," justice critic Nicole Sarauer said of the change.
"There are still instances where police will be investigating police and that's just not acceptable in 2020."
The use of force and police accountability have been raised in rallies across Canada and the United States in recent weeks since the death of George Floyd, a Black man who died while a white Minneapolis officer kneeled on his neck.
Corrections and Policing Minister Christine Tell said while she doesn't have an issue with police investigating police, she understands there's a problem with public perception.
Tell, who worked as an officer for almost 30 years, said she was investigated a number of times by one of her peers "as every police officer is."
"It caused some fear, as it should when you're being held and taken to account," she said.
The Saskatchewan government is giving the complaints commission $350,000 in additional funding to deal with its extra workload. Its jurisdiction is being expanded to include investigating highway patrol and conservation officers, members of the province's rural crime response team, and to probe internal police harassment complaints.
Commission chair Brent Cotter has said the commission has three investigators and, as a result, can only do about 40 per cent of its work. He said it has to turn complaints back to professional standards offices within the Regina and Saskatoon police services to handle.
He said there's been a moderate increase in complaints made, but with no additional resources and, in some years, a reduction.
"It makes it harder and harder for us to do our work," Cotter said in a recent interview.
He said he plans to use the extra funding to hire more investigators.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 17, 2020