Civilian watchdog to eye Yukon RCMP

Allegations of serious police wrongdoing in the Yukon could be investigated by a civilian-led watchdog from Alberta by this autumn. This deal, currently being negotiated by the Yukon and Alberta, would end the controversial practice of police investigating themselves in the territory.

Allegations of serious police wrongdoing in the Yukon could be investigated by a civilian-led watchdog from Alberta by this autumn.

This deal, currently being negotiated by the Yukon and Alberta, would end the controversial practice of police investigating themselves in the territory.

The Alberta Serious Incident Response Team is led by Clifton Purvis. He’s a Crown prosecutor, not a cop.

But his investigative team still isn’t independent enough for some critics, he admits. It’s made up “by and large” of retired police officers.

A team of retired teachers would, without a doubt, be more independently-minded than a team of retired cops, said Purvis. “There’s very good logic to that argument.”

But most teachers lack the skills needed to conduct a proper criminal investigation, and Purvis’ team needs to strike the right balance between effectiveness and independence.

“The public has the right to the best investigation,” he said. So do officers, whose careers may be on the line.

The team would “absolutely” use a retired Mountie when investigating RCMP, said Purvis. He’d want to hear that expertise. But there’s no way the ex-Mountie would be the lead investigator.

Purvis’ agency has the same powers as any police force in Alberta. They can arrest, conduct searches and wiretap.

The team has power over Alberta’s 6,300 serving police officers, including RCMP. They investigate approximately 30 cases each year – only the most serious of approximately 130 complaints received annually.

Of those, 60 per cent of cases involve serious injuries or deaths caused by police officers. The remaining 40 per cent involve allegations of corruption – a broad category that includes sexual assault, theft, internet luring and possession of child pornography.

Approximately 10 per cent of investigated cases lead to criminal charges, said Purvis.

That may not sound high. But Alberta’s police investigations unit, which looks into broader cases of police wrongdoing, only sees charges laid in approximately one per cent of its cases, he said.

Police forces must help the team with specialized matters such as forensics, photography, witness canvassing, and civilian and police interrogation. They’re required to help.

Purvis hires each investigator himself. He admits once he “made a mistake, assigning one person to one file.” But “that person doesn’t work for me any more.”

Superintendent Peter Clark, the Yukon’s top cop, has long said that he’d prefer to not have RCMP investigating themselves in the territory. Under his watch, several complaints of wrongdoing have been referred to Outside police forces to be investigated.

Yukon’s deal to hire Purvis’ team makes good on one recommendation made by a recent eight-month review of policing in the Yukon.

The review was spurred by several incidents that shook public confidence in the RCMP last year: the case of two Mounties charged with sexual assault in Watson Lake, the revelations at a coroner’s inquest that Raymond Silverfox was mocked and ridiculed as he died from acute pneumonia while in police custody, and the death of an extremely intoxicated Robert Stone at Yukon’s detox centre after being picked up by police.

Yesterday, the Yukon government announced it would move on three more of the report’s 33 recommendations.

A special task force will be formed to crack cases of domestic violence. The territory will spend approximately $600,000 this year to help create the four-person team, which will travel to Yukon’s communities.

The domestic violence response team will hopefully be ready by the autumn, said Bob Riches, assistant deputy minister of Justice.

A committee will also look at overhauling how the justice system treats domestic abuse in the territory.

“This will show we’re taking violence against women very seriously,” said Justice Minister Marian Horne. Violent crimes against Yukon women are three times the national average, she said.

According to the police review report, First Nation women reported that “some RCMP investigators feel women are responsible for their own victimization in cases of intimate partner violence and sexualized assault. They feel that their safety is not a priority to some investigators.

“Women also feel that the RCMP does not fully understand the dynamics of our smaller communities and the devastating effects on the victim, who must continue to have relationships with members of the community.

“They also noted that abusers may be prominent members of their community and their status should not protect them from investigation or lend them greater credibility than a victim.”

RCMP members, in turn, expressed frustration at how First Nation women were frequently unwilling to co-operate with investigations.

A new career orientation program will be offered at Yukon College by next spring, through the Northern Institute of Justice, with the aim of boosting the number of First Nation RCMP officers.

Of the 130 RCMP members in the Yukon, 17 are aboriginal. Just five of those were born in the territory.

And a Yukon Police Council will be struck this summer, to allow citizens to provide direction to the RCMP. Half of the council’s six members will be First Nation residents. It will be chaired by the deputy minister of Justice.

“The citizens will have a voice in policing in the Yukon,” said Grand Chief Ruth Massie.

She admits trust remains frayed between many Yukoners, particularly First Nations and RCMP members. But “the trust will come as the communication rolls out,” said Massie.

Contact John Thompson at

johnt@yukon-news.com.

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