09/27/2011 11:19 EDT | Updated 11/27/2011 05:12 EST

Former Crown lawyer to lead Nova Scotia unit that would probe police complaints

HALIFAX - The Nova Scotia government, in a bid to improve the accountability and transparency of police in the province, announced Tuesday the creation of an independent, civilian-led agency that will investigate when someone dies or is seriously hurt at the hands of police.

Justice Minister Ross Landry, who promised to set up the agency almost two years ago, said the work of the Serious Incident Response Team will effectively end the controversial practice of having police investigate police when questions of serious misconduct arise.

"It was the police themselves who came forward, saying the old way just wasn't working anymore," Landry told a news conference. "They wanted, along with Nova Scotians, a new model."

Landry then fielded several questions about the 2008 death of John Simon, a member of Cape Breton's Wagmatcook First Nation who was shot in his home by an RCMP officer.

A Halifax Regional Police investigation cleared Const. Jeremy Frenette, who shot the allegedly suicidal and drunk man. But Simon's family and band officials contend the police probe left too many questions unanswered and have called for a public inquiry.

The Commission for Public Complaints Against the RCMP later released a report that expressed concern that the force did not carry out a disciplinary review of the officers involved.

Ron MacDonald, a former Crown lawyer appointed as director of the new agency, said the team will not investigate incidents that happened prior to its creation.

He also said the two investigators who will be working with him will probably be former police officers, and other serving officers could be called in to help with investigations.

MacDonald said the agency will remain independent despite the presence of former and serving officers.

"They will be under the control of only one person — me," he said. "I don't answer to anybody but the public of Nova Scotia."

Chris McNeil, deputy chief of Halifax Regional Police, said it makes sense to have trained police investigators on the team.

"These are criminal investigations involving very serious charges," he said after the news conference.

"Nobody would expect that they would not be done by competent, capable people. ... The day may come where there's only civilians. We're not there yet."

Landry said people with police training have to be part of the agency.

"I have the utmost respect for police officers," said Landry, a former RCMP officer. "At times, the skills they bring to the table will be necessary. ... Will they be independent? That's part of the job of the team to ensure that transparency is there."

Liberal justice critic Michel Samson said he's adopting a wait-and-see attitude regarding the use of former and current police officers.

"The fact is that officers do bring a specialty to this," he said.

"The most important stick that will be used to judge how this is carried out is whether the public sees this as an independent agency and not some sort of body where officers are forced to protect the actions of their colleagues."

Samson's Conservative counterpart, Allan MacMaster, said it would be difficult for the agency to find civilians who are trained to carry out criminal investigations.

"That's why we're going to have to keep a close eye on it," he said.

Under its mandate, the agency will investigate cases involving death, serious injury, sexual assault and "other areas of public interest involving police."

It will be up to MacDonald to decide what constitutes an area of public interest.

However, he said the agency will focus its attention on cases that could lead to criminal charges.

The province's Police Complaints Commissioner's Office will continue to investigate allegations of police misconduct, which means the two agencies could be working on some of the same cases.

The new agency, which Landry said should be operational by early next year, can launch investigations after receiving complaints from the public, the head of the RCMP in Nova Scotia, a chief of police or the justice minister.

Largely based on Alberta's Serious Incident Response Team, the Nova Scotia agency will have an $800,000 annual budget. Summaries of the team's reports to the justice minister will be made public.

Ontario also has a similar unit. That province's Special Investigations Unit, established in 1990, is a civilian-led body that takes over a scene immediately after police are involved in a death or serious incident.