The civilian watchdog that oversees the RCMP says it will conduct a wide-ranging review of police practices in northern British Columbia after the release of a Human Rights Watch report alleging that some officers in the region abused and mistreated aboriginal women and girls.
The Commission for Public Complaints Against the RCMP is treating the report as a complaint and preparing to launch a public-interest investigation within the next several weeks, said Richard Evans, senior director of operations.
The Human Rights Watch report, which was released last week, accuses police of failing to adequately investigate numerous cases of missing and murdered aboriginal women in northern B.C. It also documents allegations by aboriginal women and girls who say they were mistreated during an arrest or physically or sexually abused by police while in detention.
Mr. Evans said the commission cannot investigate criminal allegations, but will look at whether some of the concerns raised in the report point to systemic problems in policing.
"There's some pretty general themes in there that are certainly amenable to further review," Mr. Evans said.
He said the commission is determining the scope of its investigation and expects to meet with researchers from Human Rights Watch on Friday.
The commission could tackle a range of issues, including whether police are targeting aboriginal women more frequently than other people for arrests related to public intoxication.
It may also look at claims that male officers are strip-searching female detainees, and concerns that domestic violence cases involving aboriginal women are handled insensitively.
"The report itself doesn't have a lot of detail in it in terms of the identity of some of the complainants," Mr. Evans said. "That doesn't preclude us from looking at the nature of the complaints in a broader, more systemic way."
Some of the specific complaints outlined in the report are already under review, while others had not previously been documented. Researchers from Human Rights Watch say that is because many aboriginal women in the region have little confidence in the force's ability to deal with complaints and are afraid of retribution from police if they step forward.
When Prime Minister Stephen Harper suggested last week that complainants should simply report allegations of abuse and mistreatment to police, advocates expressed frustration that victims were being asked to bring their complaints to the very people they say hurt them in the first place.
"It is their choice whether they should decide to come forward and talk about what happened to them with the authorities," researcher Meghan Rhoad said at a news conference in Prince George, B.C., on Tuesday. "In many cases documented in the report, women and girls did exactly that. And in some cases, it did not produce positive effects for them."
When individual complaints are made to the commission, the concerns are usually passed on to the RCMP so the force can investigate them itself or ask another police force to take over. In most cases, the commission becomes directly involved only in cases where complainants say they are not satisfied with the initial response to their concerns.
The process works differently with a public-interest investigation, which allows the commission to investigate independently while protecting complainants' privacy, Mr. Evans said. "Those are things we'll discuss as we move forward on this. We have means of reviewing these [complaints] and protecting peoples' identities as well."
A second police oversight body, B.C.'s newly established Independent Investigations Office, is widely perceived as more independent than the commission, but its mandate is limited to incidents involving death or serious injury.
Aboriginal leaders and Human Rights Watch have called for a national commission of inquiry into the disappearances and deaths of aboriginal women and girls in Canada. While the Conservative government has so far avoided questions about a full inquiry, it agreed last week to support an opposition proposal to form a new parliamentary committee to study the issue.