Records obtained through access to information, appeal to privacy commissioner
Police and Public Trust, a CBC News Atlantic investigative unit project, scrutinizes the largely off-limits police complaint and discipline systems across the region. Journalists are using access to information laws, and in some cases court challenges, to obtain discipline records and data.
When a complaint is lodged against a Royal Newfoundland Constabulary police officer, the process almost invariably unfolds behind closed doors.
That's not uncommon. In fact, across most of Canada police complaints are handled that way.
As police agencies seek to maintain the trust of the public, CBC News wanted to learn more about what complaints are filed at the RNC, and what those outcomes are.
In June 2022, CBC Newfoundland and Labrador filed an access to information request with the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary asking for records related to police discipline and copies of the chief's decisions.
After a successful appeal to the province's information and privacy commissioner, CBC obtained a ledger with hundreds of public, internal and criminal complaints against RNC officers, containing the type of complaint and outcome of the investigations.
Journalists from the CBC's Atlantic investigative unit spent weeks cleaning, formatting, analyzing and checking the data. The chief's decisions were withheld.
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Newfoundlanders and Labradorians have filed hundreds of complaints alleging police misconduct over the last decade, the ledger shows. But the public never knew what happened to most of them — until now.
There is a caveat when analysing all of the data. The material from the RNC was messy — sprinkled between the public and internal complaints were commendations and bravery awards, notes of when officers investigated other police forces, and more. Hundreds of lines of data contained redactions, with the force citing unreasonable invasion of privacy.
And just because a complaint is filed, it doesn't mean it's of substance. The data does not specify whether the complaint was founded or unfounded. That makes it difficult to determine the exact number of complaints that were substantiated. However, based on information provided on the outcome of each complaint, it appears that many were found to have been dismissed or withdrawn.
Some complaint matters include multiple officers and CBC has counted each of those as a unique complaint. For example, one file number may have six different officers named, so CBC has counted that as six complaints in this case.
The most common complaints
The information spans more than a dozen years, between January 2010 and August 2022, with complaints ranging anywhere from an officer failing to complete their work on time to sexual assault.
However, there are some types of complaints that far outweigh the others, with conduct unbecoming — actions that could bring discredit upon the constabulary — assault, incomplete investigation, neglect of duty and excessive force, topping the list.
One officer faced at least 16 different complaints
One of the reasons CBC News appealed to the privacy commissioner was that the RNC originally refused to provide unique identifiers — a number assigned to each RNC officer — that would allow an analysis of whether an officer has been the subject of repeated discipline or complaints.
The privacy commissioner's office sided with the CBC.
The data shows there are multiple officers who have, over the course of the last decade, been reprimanded for repeated offences.
And that number could be higher. In 276 instances, the RNC refused to provide a unique identifier for the officer involved, citing privacy concerns. Those cases could not be included in the analysis of those who faced multiple complaints.
One officer has faced 16 internal and public complaints — the highest noted on the ledger. Between 2010 and 2022, the officer faced 14 internal complaints and two public complaints, for a range of allegations including neglect of duty, conduct unbecoming, excessive force and use of corporate credit cards.
The discipline varied from suspension without pay to written reprimands. Not all complaints appear to have been substantiated.
The officer with the second most complaints, at 15, was also suspended without pay for complaints involving conduct unbecoming, neglect of duty and breaching RNC policy. In several cases, including this one, it was noted that the officer resigned before facing any disciplinary action.
Similarly, an officer who had 13 internal and public complaints retired before action was taken against them.
"Complaint has merit, but [officer] retired," noted the complaints ledger, in relation to a conduct unbecoming complaint from 2017.
How are complaints handled?
Critics say the current process of dealing with internal and public complaints against police officers is unnecessary complicated, secretive, and lengthy.
Non-criminal cases involving public complaints about a police officer begin with an investigation by other RNC officers, who then report to the chief of police. The chief can either dismiss and settle the complaint or internally charge an officer. A hearing is then held where discipline will be imposed, ranging from training to dismissal.
I think that the chief of police and the position of chief of police is in a very difficult position in terms of being a champion for the police and trying to represent the police as a proud and noble institution, and at the same time being responsible for discipline of police officers.
– Lynn Moore
The process only becomes public if and when the complainant or officer appeals the decision by the chief, and the Public Complaints Commission disagrees with the chief's decision.
Lawyer Lynn Moore, who was tasked with handling complaints during her time working with the constabulary from 2008 to 2012, says transparency is just one of her concerns that lie with the current process.
"It's only a very, very small number of cases that are actually publicized," said Moore.
"It doesn't make any sense to me why [the public's] not informed every step of the way; if it's important for people to know about a case where the public complaints commissioner doesn't agree with the chief of police, why isn't it important enough for people to know about it when she does agree with the chief of police?"
There is, on average, less than one public hearing per year.
Moore said the chief is left with a lot of power over the discipline process and is in an inherent conflict.
"I think that the chief of police and the position of chief of police is in a very difficult position in terms of being a champion for the police and trying to represent the police as a proud and noble institution, and at the same time being responsible for discipline of police officers," she said.
"It's hard for any individual to do both of those things well, and that's why in other places in Canada, they have civilian oversight of police forces."
'They are there almost as a token'
Moore says she's also concerned about the lack of rights for complainants. She says they have no representation at the chief's hearing, while the police officer does.
"They might end up going to a hearing and the chief is present, the chief's lawyers present, the officer's present, the officers' lawyers present, and the person who's making the complaint is the only person in the room that doesn't have counsel," said Moore.
"They don't have disclosure. They don't get to see anything about what their complaint has generated. They have no right to meaningfully participate in the public complaint process. They are there almost as a token or a decoy [as] they cannot meaningfully participate."
Making things even more complicated, she says, is when there is a criminal complaint unfolding at the same time. Any public complaint investigation will be halted until all criminal proceedings have completely ended.
"You could end up with a delay of 10 or 11 years if an appeal is launched in a criminal case, and then a retrial and then another appeal. So with the Snelgrove case, for instance, Doug Snelgrove is still a police officer because the public complaint process has been on pause while the criminal process sorts itself out."
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It's not just the public that have run into issues with the disciplinary process. An independent workplace review released in July 2022 by lawyer Harriet Lewis outlines concerns officers have with the current system.
"The requirement for the chief to determine and prepare written decisions for all but the most minor disciplinary matters has led to backlogs and delays in decision making, leaving the individual(s) involved in limbo and often resulting in the reassignment of duties pending a final decision with the disruption elsewhere that entails," wrote Lewis.
"Some members told us that they believe that discipline and penalties have been applied inconsistently depending on the individuals involved, with certain people being more favoured or forgiven than others."
Lewis wrote that some police officers indicated fear of discipline has led to indecisiveness and a hesitancy to engage in use of force interventions.
RNC Chief Patrick Roche declined an interview with CBC News and the force did not respond to questions by deadline.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ariana Kelland is a reporter with the CBC Newfoundland and Labrador bureau in St. John's. She is working as a member of CBC's Atlantic Investigative Unit. Email: email@example.com
Data analysis by Karissa Donkin and Shaina Luck
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