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'What kind of message does that send?' Nunavut works to change police oversight

IQALUIT, Nunavut — As Nunavut works to change the way police oversight works in the territory, concerns remain over how injuries or deaths involving RCMP officers are communicated to the public.
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IQALUIT, Nunavut — As Nunavut works to change the way police oversight works in the territory, concerns remain over how injuries or deaths involving RCMP officers are communicated to the public.

The territory has an agreement with the Ottawa Police Service to investigate serious police actions.

That was set to change when Nunavut's legislative assembly passed a bill in June, which opened the door for a civilian oversight body. 

A spokesperson for the Justice Department said the bill is not yet in force, but "officials ... continue to work with other jurisdictions to develop partnerships in civilian oversight."

Ottawa police are currently investigating the death of a 22-year-old Rankin Inlet man who was shot and killed by RCMP on Nov. 6. They say the shooting was the second case they were called in to investigate in 2021. 

It was the only one that was shared publicly through a news release.

The second case occurred Dec. 26, 2020, when an Iqaluit resident was arrested for mischief. Police had been called to remove a person who was said to be intoxicated and fighting from a residence.

Amanda Jones, chief superintendent of the Nunavut RCMP, said the individual "sustained injuries while in police custody in Iqaluit," including a "scraped face and elbow and cut to their tongue."

Jones said the detachment commander learned on Jan. 26 about what had happened and called on the Ottawa Police Service on Feb. 9 to investigate.

On April 7, Ottawa police "submitted their findings that the officer was acting in good faith, that the arrest was lawful and that the injuries were not as a result of a criminal act by the officer," Jones said. 

The person was not charged and was released when sober, Jones said.

When asked why no information was shared publicly, a spokesperson for the Ottawa police said the event "did not meet the threshold of a major incident — as covered by the (memorandum of understanding) with the RCMP and the government of Nunavut."

"Hence there were no public communications," the spokesperson said. 

Erick Laming, a criminology lecturer at Trent University in Peterborough, Ont., said not releasing information about serious actions that lead to a third party being called in to investigate is harmful to public trust.

"If there's an issue from last December and no one knows about it, what kind of message does that send to the community members?" Laming said.

"The responsibility of the police service (is) to be communicating that information. Just saying you're going to be more transparent means nothing."

Nunavut RCMP Insp. Winston Shorey told The Canadian Press that there is no distinction between the type of information the RCMP makes public. "The release elements of a theft of a bike, homicide or a critical incident will be fundamentally the same."

"It is our ... communication program's policy to share information to foster productive media and community relationships," Shorey said. 

In third-party investigations, he said media responsibility falls to the Ottawa Police Service once the investigation is handed over.

"We relinquish our involvement to ensure impartiality of the external process," said Shorey.

The Ottawa Police Service does not release its reports to the public.

The bill the Nunavut government passed does not require outside investigators to communicate with the public or to release final reports.

Laming said he hopes the territory will create a local police watchdog instead of contracting one from another province or territory.

"You need a team that's there, that knows the area, that knows the police-community relationship. A lot of people don't want to talk to outside investigators," he said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 27, 2021.

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This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook & Canadian Press News Fellowship

Emma Tranter, The Canadian Press