In our society, the role of police officers is to maintain peace, order and safety. To fulfill these functions, they have broad powers. But they also have duties and responsibilities. Police officers must follow special rules of conduct. In Quebec, these rules are found in the Code of ethics of Québec police officers (the “code of ethics”). This article explains the duties and rules of conduct of Quebec police officers. It also explains the rights of people who are victims of police misconduct.
What are a police officer’s duties?
Police officers perform several duties, including these:
- maintain peace, order and public safety
- prevent crime
- find and arrest criminals
- conduct criminal investigations
- ensurethat the law is obeyed
Who must follow the code of ethics?
These people must follow code of ethics:
- the Sûreté du Québec (Quebec’s provincial police force), under the authority of the Minister of Public Security
- municipal police forces that serve specific municipalities, such as the Service de police de la Ville de Montréal or SPVM (Montreal’s police force) and the Service de police de la Ville de Québec or SPVQ (Quebec City’s police force)
- the aboriginal nations police forces who serve aboriginal communities
- special constables, such as those working in courthouses and at the National Assembly of Québec
- the highway controllers of the Société de l’assurance automobile du Québec SAAQ
- wildlife conservation officers
Members of the RCMP are not covered by the code of ethics.
Does the code of ethics forbid police officers from insulting people based on their ethnic origins?
Yes. Police officers must behave in a way that maintains the public’s confidence and respect. They must not do these things:
- use obscene, blasphemous or insulting language (swearing, insults, etc.)
- act or make negative statements based on race, colour, sex, sexual orientation, religion, political convictions, language, age, social condition, disability, etc.
- treat a person impolitely or without respect
- forget or refuse to identify themselves with an official document when asked
- forget to wear the identification required by law (a badge, symbol, uniform, etc.)
- abuse their authority when dealing with the public (threats, harassment, unnecessary force, etc.)
- disobey the law (for example, illegal arrest or detention)
Do police officers on duty who abuse their authority violate the code of ethics?
Yes. For example, a police officer arrests and detains someone knowing that the person didn’t commit a crime. This is an abuse of authority.
To avoid abuse of authority, the code of ethics forbids police officers from doing these things:
- use more force than is necessary
- threaten, intimidate or harass people
- intentionally accuse someone without good reason
- act or speak improperly to obtain a statement or admission
- detain people, who are not under arrest, to interrogate them
There are many other forbidden acts related to investigations, handling firearms, detention, searches, etc. To learn more, consult the Code of ethics of Québec police officers.
What can I do if a police officer violated the code of ethics?
People who think a police officer has treated them in a way that goes against the code of ethics can file a complaint with the office of the Police Ethics Commissioner or at any police station.
The complaint must be in writing. The person making the complaint ( “the complainant”) has one year after the event, or after learning of it, to file the complaint.
If asked, the staff members at the office of the Police Ethics Commissioner must help the complainant prepare the complaint and prove it.
The Police Ethics Commissioner (the “Commissioner”) receives the complaint, examines it and tries to get the people involved to solve the problem.
Where necessary, the Commissioner will investigate and have the police officer appear before the Comité de déontologie policière (ethics committee) at the date and time fixed by the Comité.
The services of the office of the Police Ethics Commissioner are free.
What kinds of complaints are handled by the Commissioner’s office?
A complaint must meet these requirements:
- be in writing
- be submitted within the time limit (one year)
- deal with a police officer on duty
- allege a violation of the Code of ethics of Québec police officers
The Commissioner can reject the complaint, for example, if it was not made in time or the police officer’s acts were justified. The Commissioner can also reject it if the complainant refuses to go to conciliation (see section below).
If the Commissioner refuses to investigate, the complainant can ask to have the decision reviewed by submitting new facts. The complainant has 15 days after receiving the decision to ask for a revision.
But if the complaint meets the requirements, the Commissioner and sends the file to a conciliatorhe chooses. In general, all complaints go to conciliation unless the complainant refuses to go, but there are exceptions (see section below).
What is conciliation?
Complaints that are not rejected are sent to conciliation. The Commissioner can order conciliation even if the police officer was fired, quit or retired after the events complained of.
The complainant can refuse to go to conciliation. But complainants who refuse conciliation run the risk of having their complaints rejected by the Commissioner if they refuse without good reason.
During conciliation, the complainant, the police officer and a conciliator meet. The conciliator cannot be a police officer, or a former police officer.
Complaints about serious acts, such as causing serious injury or death, don’t go to conciliation. Instead, the Commissioner investigates the complaint.
The goal of conciliation is to find a solution that satisfies both the complainant and the police officer. They are asked to express their points of view freely. The complainant and the police officer can each be accompanied by a person they choose. That person may be a lawyer. The lawyer can intervene, but the conciliator usually prefers to have the complainant and the police officer speak for themselves.
Note that legal aid doesn’t cover the fees of the complainant’s lawyer even if the complainant is eligible for legal aid.
Can statements made by a police officer or a complainant during conciliation be used later?
No. Statements made during conciliation, whether by the complainant or the officer, can’t be used later as evidence in criminal, civil or administrative cases.
What happens at the end of conciliation?
The goal of conciliation is to resolve the complaint that was made. For conciliation to be successful, the complainant and the police officer must agree on how to resolve the complaint.
If they reach an agreement, the complaint is settled. The settlement must be in writing, approved by the Commissioner and signed by the complainant and the police officer involved.
If they don’t reach an agreement, conciliation fails. The Commissioner can then investigate the acts behind the complaint.
What happens when the Commissioner investigates a complaint?
In general, the Commissioner only investigates complaints that haven’t been rejected and that were not resolved through conciliation.
If the Commissioner decides to investigate, an investigator is chosen. The purpose of the investigation is to see if there is enough evidence to have a hearing before the Comité de déontologie policière (ethics committee). The police officer and the complainant are notified of the progress of the investigation.
The investigator’s findings are submitted to the Commissioner in an investigation report.
If the investigation report reveals that the complaint was justified, the Commissioner compels the police officer to go before the Comité to answer to the complaint.
If the investigation report states that the complaint is not justified, the complaint is rejected. The Commissioner informs the director of the police force and the complainant of the decision. The Commissioner explains why the complaint was rejected and sends them a summary of the investigation report. The Commissioner also tells the complainant of the right to have the decision revised by the ethics committee.
Finally, the Commissioner can send the investigation report to the Director of Criminal and Penal Prosecutions (“the prosecutor”) asking to formally accuse the police officer of a crime.
What happens if the police officer must go before the ethics committee?
The Comité de déontologie policière is a special court that decides whether a police officer has violated the code of ethics. The Comité is made up of lawyers named as full-time members by the government, for a maximum of five years.
When the Commissioner finds that a police officer acted improperly, the Comité holds a hearing to decide if the finding is justified. Only one member of the Comité runs the hearing and acts as a judge.
The dispute at the hearing is between the Commissioner and the police officer. The complainant is just a witness.
The Commissioner makes his case against the police officer. Then, the Comité must let the police officer defend herself against the complaint.
The Commissioner and the police officer take turns calling witnesses who can testify on matters relating to the complaint.
After considering the evidence, the Comité decides whether the police officer violated the code of ethics. The Comité’s decision can be appealed to the Court of Québec.
Anyone can attend Comité hearings because they are public.
What action can be taken against a police officer who violated the code of ethics?
When the Comité decides that a police officer’s disobeyed the code of ethics, it can give the officer one of these penalties:
- a warning
- a reprimand
- a scolding
- a suspension without pay for up to 60 working days
- a demotion
For example, the Comité found that agent Sauvé used unnecessary force when she used pepper spray on a person who was just walking down the street. Agent Sauvé can be suspended without pay for 20 days.
If the police officer was already fired, quit or retired when the penalty is given, the Comité can prevent her from being a peace officer for up to 5 years.
The police officer may ask to be forgiven (called a “remission”) unless she was discharged or dismissed. She can make this request only 2 to 3 years after receiving the penalty. The officer almost always gets a remission if the penalty was a first warning, rebuke or reprimand. The remission is noted in the police officer’s file. From then on, her conduct can’t be used against her (for example, to prevent her from getting a promotion) unless she commits another wrongful act or her remission is taken away.
When can there be an independent investigation?
If someone dies, is seriously injured or is injured by a firearm during a police action or arrest, an independent investigation is held. The Bureau des enquêtes indépendantes (office of independent investigations) conducts the investigation and not the Commissioner.
The Bureau also investigates complaints of a police officer committing a crime of a sexual nature while on duty.
The members of the Bureau can’t be active police officers. Also, the Bureau’s director is someone who was never a police officer. But the investigators can be retired police officers.
At the end of the investigation, the Bureau must send a report to the Director of Criminal and Penal Prosecutions who decides whether to formally accuse the police officer of a crime.