By Maria Caspani
LONDON (TrustLaw) - Canada needs to expand the mandate of an independent investigative body so that it can probe allegations of sexual abuse by the police, Samer Muscati, women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch (HRW) said.
“The Independent Investigations Office (IIO) is a good body – we want to expand its mandate,” Muscati told TrustLaw in an interview.
British Columbia set up the IIO in September 2012 as a civilian organisation empowered to investigate serious complaints of police misconduct. The problem is that it has a limited mandate which doesn’t cover sexual abuse, Muscati said.
HRW issued a statement on Tuesday on the reaction by the Commissioner of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), Bob Paulson, to two reports, one an HRW report on the abuse by police of indigenous women in British Columbia, the other a Canadian body’s report on police workplace harassment.
Paulson, in an email to his staff published on journalist David Akin's blog, defended his force against a highly critical HRW report last week and accused the U.S.-based rights group of refusing to provide information to enable the police to investigate the complaints.
The HRW report "raises some very troubling criminal allegations against us,” he wrote. “As it is constructed, it is not fair to the alleged victims, their communities or the RCMP."
He said the RCMP had asked HRW for details such as the names of those mentioned in the allegations of sexual abuse or misconduct so that the police could conduct a thorough investigation, but the rights group had refused.
Without giving details of the accusations made against the police, he told his staff “My message to you today is – don't worry about it, I've got your back.”
HRW said in its statement that it had withheld specific details of certain incidents because the women and girls interviewed had expressed serious fear of police retaliation.
But, it said, its report contained enough details for the police to respond to the allegations.
“Commissioner Paulson’s dismissive approach sets precisely the wrong tone, and illustrates the challenges RCMP victims face,” said Meghan Rhoad, women’s rights researcher for the group.
“His comments underscore the need for investigation of police abuse complaints by an independent civilian agency that won’t leap into organisational defense mode the moment police abuse is exposed.”
“A police officer in British Columbia who has raped a woman has very little to worry about right now because there is no independent civilian body empowered to investigate the crime,” Rhoad said. “That is a travesty for the victims and also for all of the officers who serve honorably.”
Last week, the Commission for Public Complaints (CPC) - an independent body responsible for ensuring that public complaints about the conduct of RCMP members are examined fairly and impartially - released a report on its investigations into workplace harassment within the police force.
"The data examined does not support the assumption that the RCMP is experiencing a systemic problem with workplace harassment, including sexual harassment," said Ian McPhail, interim chairman of the Commission.
"That being said, the simple perception of the existence of systemic poor treatment of employees by colleagues and supervisors, regardless of gender, has a huge impact on both public confidence and the manner in which the police are regarded."
In the email sent to RCMP officers, Paulson said that the CPC report “says… we do not have a systemic problem of sexual harassment, we do have issues with establishing and maintaining a respectful workplace."
The CPC is an independent body to which victims of abuse can make complaints against the RCMP, but its function is mainly to monitor internal police investigations.
“If you’ve been abused and you complain to the CPC, usually the complaints will be investigated by a police force – either the RCMP or a non-RCMP police force – that’s the standard investigation method,” Muscati told TrustLaw.
“The CPC monitor that process and if they’re not happy with the result they are supposed to investigate themselves but, even if they do, it is the RCMP that determines any remedial measures.”