Ontario's Special Investigations Unit (SIU) must dispel “toothless tiger” image: Ombudsman investigation finds culture of complacency at SIU
TORONTO (September 30, 2008) – Ontario’s system of police oversight has failed to live up to its promise due to a “complacent” culture and a lack of rigour in ensuring police follow the rules, Ontario Ombudsman André Marin says in his latest special report, released today.
In Oversight Unseen, Mr. Marin calls for new legislation to help strengthen the province’s Special Investigations Unit (SIU), as well as sweeping internal changes to dispel “conspiracy theories” and public perceptions that the SIU has a pro-police bias.
“We heard repeatedly from SIU staff and members of the public alike that the SIU was essentially ‘toothless,’ ” Mr. Marin says in the report. “It is clear that something must be done to dispel the SIU’s image as a toothless tiger and muzzled watchdog if it is to earn the respect of police officials as well as the public at large.”
Among the serious problems the Ombudsman identified within the SIU were “endemic” delays and lack of rigour in SIU investigations, a reluctance to insist on police co-operation, and an internal culture overly influenced by a preponderance of ex-police officers among its staff.
Despite legal regulations requiring all police forces to notify the SIU immediately whenever one of their members is involved in an incident resulting in serious injury or death, the Ombudsman’s investigation found notifications are routinely delayed, sometimes by days or weeks. Interviews with “witness officers” are also often delayed, even though SIU rules state they must take place immediately and no later than 24 hours after the SIU requests them.
The Ombudsman found the SIU not only tolerates these delays and fails to demand justification for them, it also keeps no records of them. These practices fly in the face of the SIU’s motto “One Law” – stipulating that police and civilians should be treated alike in investigations – and are compounded by the SIU’s low public profile, he said. “The SIU is practically pathological in its avoidance of public controversy and consistently goes for the path of least resistance.”
The report makes 45 recommendations, including that the SIU aggressively pursue reasons for police non-co-operation, and use “whatever means are available” to diversify its workforce. The Ombudsman also recommends that the SIU director’s reports be made completely public and calls on the province to amend legislation to, among other things, make it an offence for police forces not to co-operate with the SIU.
The investigation, SORT’s largest to date, was launched in June 2007 and involved more than 100 interviews and the review of tens of thousands of pages of documents. The SIU and Ministry of the Attorney General co-operated fully and welcomed the Ombudsman’s recommendations, agreeing to report back to him on their progress in implementing them. However, Mr. Marin noted he will be “watching closely” because the SIU’s commitments were “couched in vague and vapid generalities,” while the Ministry’s promise to consult with Ontarians on new legislation was “rather amorphous.”
The SIU, a civilian agency that investigates – and is empowered to lay charges – whenever police are involved in an incident causing serious injury or death, is unique in Canada. It was established in 1990 to dispel concerns about “police investigating police.” Mr. Marin’s investigation marks the seventh time the SIU has been reviewed since its creation.
“The history of police oversight in Ontario is marked by successive governments reacting reflexively, whenever public controversy erupts,” Mr. Marin says in the report. “Consequently, government interest in reforming the SIU has tended to be short-lived and incomplete.”
Since SORT was created by Mr. Marin in spring 2005, its systemic investigations have sparked reforms to such diverse government programs as newborn screening, support for special-needs children and the disabled, compensation for crime victims, legal aid and the lottery system.
Backgrounder – Quotes from Oversight Unseen
“My investigation found that the Special Investigations Unit continues to struggle to assert its authority, maintain its balance against powerful police interests, and carry out its mandate effectively.” (page 4, paragraph 4)
“Delays in police providing notice of incidents, in disclosing notes, and in submitting to interviews are endemic.” (page 5, paragraph 7)
“The SIU has not only become complacent about ensuring that police officials follow the rules, it has bought into the fallacious argument that SIU investigations aren’t like other criminal cases and it is acceptable to treat police witnesses differently from civilians.” (page 5, paragraph 8)
“The SIU’s system of oversight is out of balance. It must not only ensure accountability of police conduct, but be perceived by the public as doing so.” (page 5, paragraph 10)
“Rather than attempting to scale the ‘blue wall,’ the SIU has adapted its practices and tried to go around it.” (page 55 paragraph 196)
“It has been too willing to accept excuses for delays and its own self-image of powerlessness.” (page 55, paragraph 197)
“We heard repeatedly from SIU staff and members of the public alike that the SIU was
essentially ‘toothless.’ ” (page 62, paragraph 221)
“The SIU is practically pathological in its avoidance of public controversy and consistently goes for the path of least resistance.” (Page 72, paragraph 259)
“It is clear that something must be done to dispel the SIU’s image as a toothless tiger and muzzled watchdog if it is to earn the respect of police officials as well as the public at large.” (Page 74, paragraph 265)
“When civilians are seriously injured at the hands of police, it is critical that the results of the consequent criminal and administrative investigations are exposed to public view – to ensure confidence not only in police oversight, but in policing itself. That was the intent behind the creation of the SIU.” (page 88, paragraph 317)
“At present, the absence of publicly available explanations for the SIU Director’s decisions only helps feed conspiracy theories by critics who believe the SIU favours or is in collusion with the police.” (page 88, paragraph 317)
“In the minds of many community stakeholders, the continuing presence of a large number of former police officers at the SIU is a disturbing remnant of the past.” (page 89 paragraph 321)
“Even some of the SIU investigators we interviewed acknowledged that if the general public were aware of the composition of the SIU, it might leave the impression that the relationship between the SIU and the police was too cozy.” (page 91, paragraph 331)
“The SIU today is in a state of identity crisis.” (page 102, paragraph 367)
“The SIU is steeped at the moment in a culture of consensus – and while consensus can be a very good thing, it does not take the place of effective management.” (page 105, paragraph 375)
“The history of police oversight in Ontario is marked by successive governments reacting reflexively, whenever public controversy erupts. Consequently, government interest in reforming the SIU has tended to be short-lived and incomplete.” (page 106, paragraph 377)
“Continuing issues with police resistance are reflective of a system of oversight with too few consequences, and an SIU administration too reluctant to take decisive action.” (page 106, paragraph 378)
“The SIU was born out of public distrust of police investigating their own. It is critical that the organization move swiftly away from the police ties that continue to hold it back from being a truly civilian oversight body.” (page 106, paragraph 378)
“Ontario’s promise of civilian oversight of police in the context of incidents involving serious injury and death has yet to be fully realized. I have confidence that the established oversight model can still work – and work well. However, the SIU and the MAG will have to change their practices, and the government will have to implement legislative reform if the SIU is to achieve its full potential.” (page 107, paragraph 381)
“The SIU has signalled a willingness to implement my recommendations, however, for the most part, its commitments appear quite superficial and couched in vague and vapid generalities.” (page 119, paragraph 396)
“While the Ministry’s praise is certainly appreciated, it remains to be seen if the steps it has committed to take, including the rather amorphous promise of a dialogue with Ontarians on legislative change, will actually translate into the concrete and necessary improvements I have recommended.” (page 120, paragraph 400)