Who’s Watching the Watchers?

To me it goes without saying that effective monitoring of police and corrections officers is an essential underpinning of our democracy. These people are the sharp end (often the blunt end) of power over those who contravene the law. If they can abuse their power they are committing a fundamental breach of the Rule of Law. Not only are they acting as though the law does not apply to them  but they can use force to produce a chilling effect on their victims’ willingness to complain about abuses.

As the recent report of Andre Marin, the Ontario Ombudsman, suggests, the “code” within peace officer groups can lead to huge violations of rights. If officers cannot or will not monitor each others’ behaviour, the possibility of “informal disciplining” of accused persons or prisoners will grow. In order to maintain an implied threat against those who would confront or even question authority, peace officers can and do resort to draconian, and sometimes violent, measures.

Here is a link to a summary of the Report:


Another  recent perspective was a piece in the Toronto Star on Minister Toews’ swift rejection of considered recommendations on RCMP oversight by two retired Generals .

This article points reveals a lot about governance in the context of law enforcement. When people are given significant power over others and deference from the public, there will be a tendency to abuse. When the logical solution is recommended – independent oversight – political considerations will trump the logic.

These political elements occur within the administration of the organization and in the government executive. Both  are loath to risk public blemishes and will resist real oversight, regardless of its benefits.


This is not just an RCMP problem. Consider, for example, how long the government has essentially ignored the findings and recommendations of the Correctional Investigator, who does not report to Parliament.

Despite periodic “major incidents”, such as the Prison for Women episode, Ashley Smith or the series of riots that occurred in the late 20th century, the government and the Correctional Service have resisted anything but the most token interference with the Service’s internal remedies. Even the most innocuous of oversight proposals – such as independent review of segregation decisions at appropriate junctures – are answered by bureaucratic and political intransigence. At best they accept window dressing, but usually they ride it out and accept nothing.

All of this is complicated by what I consider an overly- deferential attitude to towards prison authorities by the Courts. When prisoners and other victims seek review of abuses, or when they try to point out the inadequacy of recourses such as the grievance system,  Judges will tend to presume the expertise of Corrections officials and will require clear evidence of breaches of law and policy. This trend gives comfort to correctional decision-makers and politicians who seek to retain discretion in their own hands.

It is not surprising that the Courts defer. Criminal justice is a highly complicated field of law, requiring a lot of direct experience and expertise in decision-makers. The problem is that this  leaves a gap. There is no effective means of overseeing the system, based on an informed and expert perspective, between the judges and the keepers. This brings us back to oversight.

We need to address the code. Our politicians and mandarins need to have the wisdom and cajones to change the culture. Failing this we will continue to see unnecessary abuse, injury and even death in our criminal justice system.


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