When you file a complaint against police officers, usually one of their peers is going to investigate.

That is the case with the Halifax Regional Police Service, which has a Professional Standards office where the chief of police sits as the judge. The RCMP accepts complaints at detachments, but you can also file them with the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission (CRCC).

Although the CRCC makes a point of telling people that it is “not part of the RCMP” (crcc-ccetp.gc.ca), RCMP members investigate all complaints: “No matter what entity the complaint is filed with, the RCMP will generally investigate it and issue a Final Report to the complainant.”

When there is an incident of violence involving a police officer, Nova Scotia’s Serious Incident Response Team investigates. Former Crown attorney Ron MacDonald runs that team. He says they are “civilian investigators,” but they’re former police officers.

There is a sense of family in policing. Police officers tend to close ranks when criticized by civilians, so it is difficult to achieve any useful results from these processes.

It’s the same when members of the RCMP file harassment complaints against colleagues.

Federal public-safety minister Ralph Goodale commissioned a report (released this spring) that reached the same conclusion as one prepared by former Auditor General Sheila Fraser. They both proposed sweeping changes to the way the RCMP operates and called for civilian expertise to bring its hierarchical, top-down management structure into the 21st century.

“The RCMP is not a state unto itself, and it is required to comply with the same legal obligations to prevent workplace harassment, bullying, and sexual harassment as other federal employers,” says the latest report. “Instead, after each new harassment scandal has arisen highlighting anew the RCMP’s dysfunctional organizational structure, the RCMP’s reaction has been to merely circle the wagons.”

When police officers receive a complaint from a civilian, there are similar challenges. Police officers have stressful jobs and deal with a lot of crap. This tends to make them cynical about people. I get that; they’re not usually seeing humanity at its best.

But that means it’s just about impossible to make a complaint about police, to the police, without ticking off police. That will make them less likely to be thorough and impartial during their investigation. It’s human nature; who likes to be criticized about the way they do their work?

Let’s say you’re the victim of a crime, and don’t think police are investigating properly. If you wait until the investigation is over to file a complaint, and no charge has been laid, then the automatic assumption is that you’re complaining because you don’t like the outcome of the investigation.

One case that I’m aware of involves a complainant who received legal advice to wait until the investigation ended before filing a complaint. But still, people have assumed the complaint is about the result, even though documents reveal concerns about the officer’s conduct during the investigation and not the decision about whether to lay a charge.

This reminds me of the double bind that handcuffed bomber pilots in Joseph Heller’s 1961 novel Catch-22. A double bind, or Catch-22, is “a dilemma or difficult circumstance from which there is no escape because of mutually conflicting or dependent conditions” according to the Canadian Oxford Dictionary.

In his book, Heller’s main character Capt. John Yossarian pretends he’s insane so he can avoid having to fly dangerous missions over Europe in his bomber. Unfortunately for Yossarian, though, his desire to avoid those missions proves that he is sane and so he has to continue flying.

“That’s some catch, that Catch-22,” Yossarian says.

“It’s the best there is,” says Doc Daneeka.

The solution to our Catch-22 is to provide more civilian and truly impartial oversight. Goodale says he’s open to the idea, but wants to do more research before presenting any kind of plan to cabinet. If he does this, hopefully it will be a model for other police forces in Canada. Even if he doesn’t proceed, there’s nothing stopping Halifax from adopting a similar approach.

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