‘We’re not perfect’: Police chief pledges transparency
February 21, 2023 By Marlo Glass, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Feb. 21, 2023, Saint John’s, N.B. – Saint John’s police chief says his force is dedicated to maintaining transparency and building public trust, after three of his officers have been cleared of criminal charges in recent months.
“We build trust by holding ourselves accountable and being transparent,” chief Robert Bruce told the Telegraph-Journal.
Bruce said he considers himself accountable for the actions of every member of his force, but “our officers make mistakes,” the chief said. “Things happen. We have a difficult job.”
He said the force can build trust by following the correct processes and procedures when the public bring forward complaints, as “the public demands confidence with us,” he said.
“But I think what the public needs to know is we’re not perfect.”
Bruce took the reins as police chief in spring 2021, and was the fifth chief in six years. Upon arriving, he said his top priority was public engagement.
He said in the past, the police force may not have been as forthcoming regarding criminal charges laid against officers.
“But now it’s reported by us immediately,” he said, “you have the information at the same time the court does.”
That will help with the force’s public perception, “but again, we’re going to make mistakes. We’re all human, dealing with difficult situations all the time.”
Last month, two Saint John Police Force officers were cleared of assault charges which arose following public complaints.
Const. Benaiah Sok, 29, was accused of using excessive force while arresting a man on Aug. 22, 2021. A use-of-force report details Sok’s actions as “wrist lock, neck restraint, and holding down.”
Charges were withdrawn after the defense submitted the officer’s account of the events, “including his explanation as to why he had proper grounds to arrest,” Sok’s lawyer Nathan Gorham told the Telegraph-Journal following the decision.
Roy was previously charged with assaulting a man with a metal wand, but charges were dropped as the officer completed an alternative measures program, aimed at holding people “accountable at a community level,” according to the province.
Additionally, in Dec. 2022, Sgt. David Kimball was acquitted of obstruction of justice by allegedly filing a false report. The Crown declined to call evidence, citing public interest grounds.
Matthew Martin of Black Lives Matter New Brunswick, an organization which advocates for defunding the police, said it’s these types of incidents that show why some people lack trust in police in the first place.
All three officers are currently going through the process outlined in the Police Act, Bruce said, though he couldn’t comment on specifics.
The New Brunswick Police Commission is an independent oversight body which manages police officer conduct complaints.
Jennifer Smith, executive director of the commission, said an investigator is appointed under the Police Act to investigate any conduct complaints against a police officer.
“The investigator has the power to question witnesses, take statements, obtain documents and physical objects and may engage experts, consultants or additional investigators to assist,” she said via email, and the investigator also prepares an investigation report, along with a summary of findings and a conclusion.
If the investigation determines the officer has violated the Police Act, they can come to an “informal resolution, settlement conference or an arbitration hearing,” Smith said.
Gary Forward, Woodstock Police Force Chief and head of New Brunswick Chiefs of Police, said the Police Act is void if an officer retires, quits, or leaves the police force during the investigation.
Otherwise, “the Police Act looms,” he said. “There’s no instance where a criminal investigation would take place and a Police Act investigation wouldn’t, with that one exception.”
Nova Scotia’s Serious Incident Response Team has set up a permanent outpost in New Brunswick, something police chiefs have been “begging” for, Forward said, in order to avoid the province’s police forces investigating each other.
Bruce and Forward both said the independent investigation unit will foster more public trust.
Previously, New Brunswick did not have its own agency and would rely on investigation units from nearby provinces for incidents such as police shootings.
But now, thanks to a joint agreement between Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, an assistant director, three investigators and one administrative professional will be based in New Brunswick, while the head director responsible for the organization’s operations in both provinces will remain in Nova Scotia.
Forward said if he receives any complaints more serious than an officer swearing at a roadside checkstop, he’ll refer it to the SiRT.
“Police forces are, and have, rightfully so, been held to a higher standard for how we transparently investigate these matters,” he said. “I want the public to know the Woodstock Police Force is hands-off. We stand on the side of transparency.”
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