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UPDATE: Inquiry into Emergencies Act urged to recommend greater political oversight of police

The concept of police oversight and independence came up time and again over six weeks of fact-finding testimony at the Public Order Emergency Commission, which is investigating the federal Liberal government's use of the Emergencies Act last winter.
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RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki arrives at the Public Order Emergency Commission, Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2022 in Ottawa.

There is virtue in clearly defining the difference between government oversight of law enforcement and the independence of police, experts told a public inquiry Thursday, although it is not as straightforward as some witnesses have suggested.

The concept of police oversight and independence came up time and again over six weeks of fact-finding testimony at the Public Order Emergency Commission, which is investigating the federal Liberal government's use of the Emergencies Act last winter.

Throughout the inquiry hearings, police and politicians described a separation between police operations and policy, and said politicians and police boards should never direct operations.

The line was often described as a separation between church and state.

"For me, it’s pretty clear. Anything operational, we’re advising what’s happening, but we’re not taking direction on how to do things," Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) Commissioner Brenda Lucki testified on Nov. 15. She suggested the federal government should more clearly define the line that politicians should not cross in legislation.

While an expert panel of witnesses agreed Thursday that the line should be more clearly defined, Guelph University political science professor Kate Puddister said such a stark distinction is unhelpful.

"My perspective is that this distinction, in an attempt to draw a clear line between the two, does a disservice," she said. "This formulation allows governments to shirk responsibilities with respect to policing, perhaps as a method of political strategy."

The commission is investigating the events that led up to the government's decision to invoke the Emergencies Act last winter in response to the weeks-long 'Freedom Convoy' protest in Ottawa and similar protests at border crossings across Canada. 

The commission also has a mandate to give recommendations about how to modernize the law, and suggest areas where further study could be warranted. 

Six weeks of public hearings ended last Friday, Nov. 25, culminating in hours of testimony from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and the commission has now turned to expert testimony on a range of issues related to the protest.

The police governance experts who testified on Thursday, Nov. 24, reaffirmed the importance of police services being independent of political interference. Otherwise, they risk being seen as "a tool of the government of the day," as Ryan Teschner, the executive director of the Toronto Police Services Board, said in his testimony. 

But all agreed police need more oversight over some elements of their operations.

"We have for too long had a rather vague and sometimes often overblown conception of police independence from government," Teschner said.

Michael Kempa, a criminologist with the University of Ottawa, suggested legislators "simply jettison the term 'operations' altogether," and define police independence "in terms of the exercise of their powers of investigation, arrest and the laying of charges."

The experts also suggested all police services in Canada should have some kind of civilian oversight body, like a police commission or board. 

Most urban police services in Canada have one, with the exception of provincial police and RCMP. The RCMP commissioner reports directly to the minister of public safety. 

Instituting a board would mean that all political direction to police would be public and documented, and ensure "ministerial direction is appropriate and given when necessary," Puddister said. 

Commissioner Paul Rouleau said some of the panel's recommendations may make their way into his final report, though he wouldn't say which. 

Rouleau and his team must deliver their findings by Feb. 6, with the report to be made public by Feb. 20.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 1, 2022.

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