It’s long been a point of criticism in this country.
There is a lack of transparency when people die in police custody — the fate Myles Sanderson met Wednesday after he’d been accused of killing multiple people during a stabbing rampage through Saskatchewan.
His death in RCMP custody means some questions held by grieving family members and a reeling public may never come.
Yet there will be an independent review of what happened between the time police took Sanderson into custody — following a four-day manhunt — and the time he was pronounced dead.
The RCMP have asked the Saskatoon police and the Saskatchewan Serious Incident Response Team to review the death. A report will be released within 90 days of the investigation’s end and detail the civilian-led, independent outfit’s decision about whether there could be charges or not, according to the province’s website.
Alberta-based Tom Engel, the Criminal Trial Lawyers’ Association’s policing committee chair, said police in Canada could themselves do more to be transparent in these kinds of situations.
Especially when people die in custody, there needs to be “immediate transparency,” said Engel, who pointed to the United States as a place from which the RCMP could take some inspiration.
“There’s media conferences, videos are being played, information is given out; they’re very forthcoming in providing information immediately (in America),” he said.
There is likely dash cam footage of Sanderson’s arrest, said Engel, audio and video evidence about what exactly happened during those moments around 3:30 p.m. on Wednesday along a barren stretch of highway when officers rammed Sanderson’s car and took him into custody.
“Why don’t they just release it?” he asked. “What is the rationale?”
Sanderson can be seen on video footage captured that day with his chest pressed up against a police car as officers hold his arms behind his back. One officer pats him down.
Then, police said, he was put into the back of a squad car alone where he eventually went into “medical distress” and officers tried to revive him. Paramedics took him to hospital where he was pronounced dead.
The review of the arrest carried out by the Saskatoon police and SIRT will determine if there was negligence on behalf of the officers involved, and if criminal charges should be laid, said Engel.
But it could take a long time and the answers given at the end may not be all that revealing, said Engel. Many similar outfits to SIRT in Saskatchewan seem to limit how much information they divulge in their final reports, he said.
“What’s more important, you know, transparency in the public interest, or the unlikely compromising of an investigation?” asked Engel, highlighting a common refrain from police about not wanting to hurt ongoing investigations by divulging too much information.
It’s an argument from police he usually disagrees with. Without that transparency from the RCMP, people are left to speculate, he said.
Kent Roach, a law professor at the University of Toronto who has studied policing, said that the review into the death in custody is just one step in figuring out what happened.
He said there should be a coroner’s inquest not only into Sanderson’s death, but the deaths of the other 11 people connected to the mass killing, including Damien Sanderson, Myles’ brother, who was originally sought as a suspect.
Then, there may be a case to be made for a full public inquiry to be launched, said Roach, much like the ongoing mass casualty commission in Nova Scotia, which was put into motion after the Portapique shootings that left 22 dead in 2020.
At the very least, a Saskatchewan coroner’s inquest — a provincial public inquiry with a narrower scope than the hearings in Nova Scotia — could allow for more information around how these deaths could have been prevented, said Roach. There could also be exploration of how cultural trauma related to Canada’s residential school system may have played a role, he said.
“Unfortunately, Saskatchewan has, in my view, a bad record in that they didn’t call an inquest to examine whether Colten Boushie’s death could have been avoided,” said Roach. “So given that, you know, 10 of the 11 people that died in this horrific tragedy were Indigenous, that’s something that I hope Saskatchewan does.”
In Saskatchewan, coroner inquests are public inquiries into deaths where there can be evidence and witnesses called before a panel of six jury members. Some of them should be Indigenous if one is launched, said Roach.
The province makes a coroner’s inquest mandatory in cases where people die in custody while in jail, but there’s an exception if “the person in custody died from natural causes and the death is not preventable,” according to the province’s website.
“I think it should do a coroner’s inquest, because the failure to appoint one in the Colten Boushie case, I think, raises a question of, how much do Indigenous lives matter?” he said.
“This case, unfortunately and tragically, raises that very same question again.”
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