ANALYSIS: The Mirage of Police Oversight
ANALYSIS: The Mirage of Police Oversight
There is no real, meaningful oversight of police, certainly not in the way that communities desire it. The notion of police oversight is, in fact, a mirage given the place and function which police serve for the state in capitalist societies. Police are established and deployed precisely to inflict violence on communities of exploited and oppressed people to ensure conditions of accumulation and profit (maintaining labor markets, property, and extraction of value) for capital. They are expected to show state power through regular displays of force, including lethal force.
We can see the limits of so-called oversight by looking at the actual work of the supposed oversight agencies. One example is found in the recently released annual report of the Independent Investigation Unit of Manitoba covering police violence in that province over parts of 2020 and 2021.
Neither Independent Nor About Oversight or Accountability
Police oversight agencies are not about real oversight, let alone accountability. They are more about statist public relations and the more amorphous “public confidence” (in which the public in question is privileged, propertied, white). They are designed to give the impression that something is being done, or could be done, to hold police accountable and perhaps to reform policing—within the limits of capitalist state power with policing as a fundamental part of this power.
We can see this explicitly in the vision statement of the IIU. It neither mentions oversight or accountability. It does not even make such a short reach as “reform.” Instead, it says: “Vision Statement: Building the confidence of all Manitobans with respectful, impartial and comprehensive investigations.” This makes it pretty clear that the modest aim is pubic confidence—massaging how the public feels about policing in a manner to allow policing to continue and expand.
In terms of “independence,” the IIU is also found wanting. While no active police officers are currently serving, according to the IIU, it is entirely within their mandate. At the same time, many IIU members are former police officers, from a range of policing services. Indeed, the annual report welcomes several former cops to the agency. It says:
“Curtis Borsa retired as a criminal investigator with the Canada Border Services Agency after 30 years of service. He also served as an intelligence officer and a national surveillance instructor for the CBSA, with particular experience and specialization in cross-border firearms investigations and immigration fraud. Craig Gerstmar served as a member of the Manitoba Conservation Officers Service for 34 years. He worked as a special services coordinator and supervised specialized provincial units, including the Special Investigations Unit, Canine Unit and Turn In Poachers (TIP) program. Craig was a certified basic firearms instructor, defensive tactics instructor, use of force instructor and emergency vehicle operations instructor. Susan Roy-Haegeman retired from the Winnipeg Police Service after 22 years of service, the last 10 years of which she was assigned to the Forensic Identification Section doing crime scene investigations.”
Clearly, police are centrally involved in the investigation unit. And the unit is fundamentally oriented towards reinforcing policing.
What the Report Says (And Does Not Say)
One benefit of having police investigation units is the work they do in documenting at least the more egregious examples of police harms. In the absence of police investigations units, police investigate themselves exclusively and families and community members are left to do much of the work of finding information. Even with investigative bodies in place, much day-to-day police violence goes unreported or undocumented. So, what does the IIU annual report say about aspects of police violence in Manitoba?
The IIU breaks their reports into fiscal years, so the current report covers fiscal year 2020-2021, that is from April 2020 to March 2021. According to the report, the IIU received 54 notifications in that period. Of those 54 notifications, they investigated 39 cases and monitored five. Ten notifications were deemed to be outside the mandate of the IIU. The IIU-led investigations covered death, serious injury, and cases in which, for whatever reasons, the director decided it was in the public interest for the IIU to investigate.
Of these, 7 (15 per cent) investigations involved a death, 16 (30 per cent) involved serious injury and 11 per cent were officer-involved shootings. In terms of officer-involved shooting records, the IIU reports six cases, broken down as follows: three officer-involved shooting incidents that resulted in death; one officer-involved shooting incident resulting in a serious injury; two incidents that involved the discharge of a “less lethal impact projectile,” with minor injuries sustained. These latter weapons are considered firearms for legal purposes.
So, what charges resulted from all of this? Notably there were no charges related to police lethal force. This is telling. Of the charges laid, the IIU reports the following: Two charges of Assault; three charges of Dangerous Operation Causing Bodily Harm; two charges of Publication of an Intimate Image Without Consent; one charge of Voyeurism; one charge of Perjury; one charge of Fraud Over; two charges of Sexual Assault; two charges of Sexual Interference; one charge of Being Unlawfully in a Dwelling House one charge of Mischief; one charge of Breach of Undertaking.
In terms of the police forces involved the IIU reports as follows: RCMP 28; Winnipeg Police Service (WPS) 17; Manitoba First Nations Police (MFNP) 2; Brandon Police Service (BPS) 5; Morden Police Service 1; Rivers Police Service 1. The IIU assumed jurisdiction in cases as follows: RCMP 19; WPS 14; MFNP 2; BPS 3; Morden 1. Most RCMP notifications involved RCMP West (15, or 53 percent) followed by RCMP North (11, or 46 percent) and RCMP East (three, or 11 percent).
Twenty-six affected persons (victims) were identified as male and 14 as female. The IIU has not recorded, or not reported, police victimization by racialization or Indigenous identity. My own research suggests that there were at least three Indigenous people killed by police in Manitoba in the period of the IIU report: Eishia Hudson (16); Jason Collins (36), and; Stewart Kevin Andrews.
People Killed by Police in Manitoba During the Report Period
The IIU does not provide information about people killed by police in Manitoba. My own research suggests there were at least six police-involved deaths in Manitoba over the period covered by the IIU report. Some details are as follows:
Eishia Hudson, a 16-year-old Indigenous girl, was shot and killed by Winnipeg police on April 8, 2020. The shooting occurred after a police vehicle chase. Four other teens (two boys, age 15 and 16, and two girls, age 15 and 16) were in the vehicle.
Jason Collins, a 36-year-old Indigenous man, was shot and killed by Winnipeg police in the early morning of April 9, 2020.
Stewart Kevin Andrews, a 22-year-old Indigenous man, was shot and killed by Winnipeg police in the early morning of April 18, 2020.
A 27-year-old man died in RCMP custody after being arrested in Ste. Rose du Lac, Manitoba, on October 30, 2020.
A 40-year-old man died in Winnipeg police custody in the early morning of November 4, 2020.
A man died from injuries received in a car crash after a police pursuit in Morden, Manitoba on January 22, 2021.
It is curious that the IIU report does not address these killings and other issues of police violence in detail. In fact, this is a rather thin report at only 21 pages. Almost half of it is taken up with a bureaucratic overview of the IIU, which is material that could be gleaned from the unit’s website. Multiple pages of the document are taken up with charts and graphs that simply reproduce what is laid out in the text.
This is a document that shows the limited nature of police oversight. A specter in the mirage of police accountability.