Manitoba’s ‘outdated’ agency for complaints about police conduct to be overhauled: minister

The Manitoba agency that investigates public complaints about officer misconduct is getting overhauled amid growing calls for greater police scrutiny, CBC News has learned. 

“I don’t want to prescribe the solution. I know there’s a problem,” provincial Justice Minister Kelvin Goertzen said in response to a CBC News investigation into Manitoba’s Law Enforcement Review Agency (LERA).

Goertzen said the province will introduce legislation this session to address the “outdated” parts of LERA, an independent civilian agency that looks into complaints about the conduct of municipal police officers. 

That could come as early as Thursday afternoon.

That’s when the minister is slated to introduce a bill that includes amendments to the laws governing LERA.

There have been repeated calls over the decades for changes to the agency, and in recent years, its ranks have been depleted. 

A CBC News analysis of all publicly available court hearings posted by LERA shows that only two police officers have faced discipline in the last decade. 

Manitobans filed more than 1,700 complaints during that same period of time, the vast majority of which were dismissed by the commissioner or abandoned by the complainant.

A Winnipeg woman, whose journey trying to find justice through LERA left her feeling re-victimized and abandoned, welcomed the impending changes. 

“It kind of sucks the life out of you,” said Sophie, who CBC is not identifying because she’s a victim of sexual abuse with her case currently before the courts.

‘I wanted to run’

Her experience with LERA began in 2020. That’s when Sophie came forward to police and reported a historic sexual assault committed by a family member.

The Winnipeg police officer who first took her statement was dismissive, she said, and falsely told her there was a statute of limitations for when she could report the abuse.

“He went out of his way to belittle me and make me feel like crap,” she said. “I really thought … people would show up and just listen to me.”

Justice Minister Kelvin Goertzen says the province will introduce legislation this session to address the ‘outdated’ parts of the Law Enforcement Review Agency that looks into complaints about municipal police officers. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

Reporting what had happened to her was a very stressful moment, Sophie said, adding that she had grappled for decades with the guilt of not reporting the abuse. 

Her complaint was about an incident that happened more than 40 years ago, she said, and the officer told her there was a limit of between 30 and 35 years to report. 

She knew this was incorrect. 

Under the Criminal Code of Canada, there is no time limit on filing criminal charges for sexual assault.

“I don’t know if he felt that I was clogging the system … But everything he said to me that day indicated to me that I was wasting his time,” she said. “I wanted to run. I just wanted to run.”

But she didn’t. 

Instead, Sophie asked that a female officer take her statement.

Complaint dismissed

Upset and fearing what would happen to the next woman who tried to report a sexual assault to this officer, she filed a complaint with LERA.

LERA is the sole agency in Manitoba to which individuals can file a public complaint about the conduct of a municipal officer. 

It does not investigate criminal allegations and does not cover the RCMP, which has its own police watchdog that looks into public complaints. The Independent Investigation Unit investigates all serious allegations against police, such as when officers shoot a person or cause serious injury. 

Sophie was never interviewed by a LERA investigator. She’s among the more than 2,000 people whose complaints have been dismissed by LERA since its creation in 1985. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

Sophie said she wanted to see the officer disciplined or sent for training on how to handle victims of sexual abuse. 

Eight months later, her complaint was dismissed by the commissioner after he interviewed the officer and his partner. He said there was not enough evidence to justify sending it to a public hearing. 

He also said there were “discrepancies” between Sophie’s account and the officer’s.

Vacant jobs unfilled

Sophie was never interviewed and neither were the two officers who took her statement after she asked for female officers, according to her file with LERA.

Winnipeg police declined to comment on this story due to the ongoing government review of the Police Services Act. 

Sophie is one of the more than 2,000 people whose complaints have been dismissed by LERA since its creation in 1985. 

A 2016 CBC News investigation found only three per cent of complaints to LERA got referred to a public hearing — and only a small percentage of those end in disciplinary action against an officer.

Since that investigation, the agency has continued to languish.

Records show that just one per cent of complaints have been referred to public hearing since 2012. 

Typically, the commissioner dismisses more than half, while the other half are abandoned by the complainant, according to LERA’s annual reports.

To move ahead to a public hearing, the agency requires separate evidence that supports the complainant’s statement, the commissioner said in an email. That could include video or audio files, witness testimony or documents.

The public agency has been understaffed for years, with the Manitoba government saving more than $600,000 by leaving open vacant positions — and reducing the number of investigators by half in 2020-21. 

That means there are now only two investigators to handle the workload.  

Asked about staffing levels, LERA commissioner Andrew Minor told CBC News the agency tries to be as efficient as possible, “like many areas of government.” 

He said there are five staff positions, including the commissioner, registrar, a clerk and two investigators. 

“While there has been some turnover in the recent past, it has been determined that the current staffing at LERA is sufficient to manage the volume of complaints,” Minor said in an email.

Sources with direct knowledge of the agency’s operations say it was so bare-bones at one point in 2020 that it had no investigators or administrative staff working — just the commissioner to oversee the many complaints.

Complaints that go to public hearing drag on for years

When a person makes a complaint about an officer’s conduct, the officer can face discipline through two methods:

  • The commissioner can investigate the allegation and find there is sufficient evidence to send it to a public hearing, where a provincial court judge decides its merits and can order a penalty.

  • The officer can admit disciplinary default.

The officer and complainant can also come to an informal resolution, which has only happened about a dozen times in the last decade.

Winnipeg criminal defence attorney Zilla Jones, who has handled LERA complaints in the past, said she understands some complaints may be frivolous or made in bad faith, but she still believes not nearly enough of them make it to a hearing.

“Based on the number of complaints made, and the anecdotal reports of people, and then what actually comes through the courts, there’s a big discrepancy there,” she said.

“That’s way too low.”  

Of the few complaints that are referred to public hearing, most drag on for years before they are seen by a judge, and often by that time, the complainant can’t be found.

According to court records provided by Minor, LERA complaints filed as early as 2017 are still making their way through the court system.

Winnipeg defence attorney Zilla Jones, who has handled LERA complaints in the past, said not nearly enough cases make it to a hearing. (Cliff Simpson / CBC News)

Records show that in one complaint, the police officer in question died before they could hold a hearing; in another, the complainant died before a hearing could occur.

A previous attempt at reform

In the early ’90s, the former Filmon Progressive Conservative government tried to solve the problem with legislative amendments.

They wanted to compel officers to testify, lower the standard of proof to find officers in disciplinary default to the same used in civil law and give LERA the ability to review maintenance and operations of police rather than just investigating officers.

Those amendments were tossed after strong opposition from police officers, their union and the NDP.

The government of former Premier Gary Filmon proposed changes to LERA in the 1990s, but the plan didn’t happen after opposition from police officers and the NDP. (Justin Fraser/CBC)

Flash forward almost three decades later and the Tories are going to try again. 

Goertzen said they will be introducing the legislation this session as part of the review of the Police Services Act.

No other details were provided, but he said the government will be looking for a “mechanism that’s more effective” when investigating complaints against police.

“The way we structure complaints against officers isn’t right,” Goertzen said.