Integrity counts but it’s not enough
The controversy over MLA expense claims sheds harsh light on the behaviour of some people in responsible positions acting under inadequate rules. Poorly designed regimes invite bad results, though bad results are not inevitable. Consider the 28 self-investigations by the RCMP that Paul Kennedy reviewed when he was RCMP complaints commissioner.
When the RCMP investigated serious incidents involving its own officers, including shooting deaths, two-thirds of the cases were handled “partially or entirely inappropriately,” Kennedy found. There were conflicts of interest and personal acquaintances between investigating and investigated officers, and in a third of cases the investigating officer was a rank equal to or lower than the officer being investigated.
Yet despite the flaws, Kennedy concluded that the investigations themselves were timely and unbiased. As noted back in August by Senator Pamela Wallin, “the fact that Kennedy found no actual instances of wrongdoing is a marvellous testament to the quality of the men and women who serve in Canada’s national police force.”
A few years back, a criminology study on the handling of police complaints in Nova Scotia found that police departments tended to be harder on their own officers than an independent oversight body would have been.
So the perception that police investigating themselves try to excuse wrongdoing is just that – a perception, which appears to be contradicted by actual experience.
But perception is hugely important here. Incidents such as police deaths in custody stir strong feelings. When officers are cleared it’s likely that some people will adamantly disagree and look for ways to discredit the investigation. In a case of police investigating themselves, it can be very difficult to defend the findings.
In addition, of course, if police are working with a flawed process, screw-ups are going to occur sooner or later as a result. Professional integrity is critical in these matters but ultimately it’s not enough.
RCMP commissioner William Elliott has made it official policy that the Mounties will defer to provincial investigative units, where they exist, when officers are involved in serious incidents. Elsewhere the Mounties call in other police forces, and only in rare cases where there’s no practical alternative — in the Far North, for example — will the RCMP investigate itself.
This formalizes what has been evolving in practice but it dovetails with Nova Scotia’s announced intention to create a seven-member arm’s length investigative body to handle serious police incidents. The RCMP in Nova Scotia had already endorsed the approach, and Cape Breton regional police Chief Myles Burke has spoken favourably of it as well. It’s an overdue reform.
These issues are not decided by officers on the street but by the most senior officials and by governments. In the case of MLA expenses, of course, it was not a case of MLAs having to deal with a flawed system imposed by higher-ups; they themselves are the higher-ups.