06/19/2015 03:03 EDT | Updated 06/19/2016 05:59 EDT

New investigative unit allows civilian oversight of Manitoba police

WINNIPEG - The director of a new civilian-led unit that will investigate police forces across Manitoba says it is the toughest of its kind in Canada.

The Independent Investigation Unit will not only review cases where police officers are involved in deaths or serious injuries, but will also be able to take over any police investigation it considers to be in the public interest, director Zane Tessler said Friday.

That would be any case where an officer is suspected of breaking federal or provincial laws.

"In other words, there are virtually no limits to the jurisdiction of the (unit) and the manner in which it may provide civilian oversight of police," said Tessler, a former Crown attorney and defence lawyer

Calls for such a unit date back decades and grew louder after the 1988 shooting death of aboriginal leader J.J. Harper. It was recommended formally in a 2008 public inquiry into the death of Crystal Taman, a Winnipeg woman who was killed when her car was rear-ended by an off-duty Winnipeg police officer who had been out partying all night.

Her husband, Robert Taman, said Friday he has long pushed for the government to act on the inquiry recommendation.

"I feel a sense of accomplishment that some of the struggles and hardship and emotional days and nights are worth it," he said. "I think there are still changes to come, but this is really, really big."

The officer accused of killing Taman's wife, Derek Harvey-Zenk, originally faced charges that included impaired driving causing death and refusing a breathalyzer. But he was convicted of lesser charges under a plea deal and sentenced to house arrest.

The inquiry heard that the investigation by the East St. Paul police force was botched and that the police chief of the Winnipeg bedroom community had previously worked with Harvey-Zenk.

The new unit means police forces will no longer investigate their own members, Attorney General Gord Mackintosh said.

The unit will be led by Tessler and will include seven investigators who are all former police officers, many of them from out of province. If charges are to be laid, a prosecutor will be brought in — either from out of province or from a different area of the province — who has no connection to the police force involved.

The unit will have a budget of $2.5 million a year and expects to handle an estimated 30 to 50 cases a year, Tessler said.