You may have arrived here via a direct link to a specific post. To see the most recent posts, click HERE.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Call for police watchdogs growing across Canada

July 27, 2010
Shannon Kari, National Post

Standing on the front steps of the sandstone facade of the Osgoode Hall courthouse in downtown Toronto, Evelyn Minty grieved openly about the loss of her son, Douglas, who was fatally shot by an Ontario Provincial Police officer last year.

"I want answers. I want to know what happened with my son," she said outside a court hearing this spring. "I don't want mothers to go through what I have gone through. It's been a year. I can't forget it. I can't sleep nights."

Her developmentally disabled 59-year-old son had a knife and was allegedly approaching an officer in the small community of Elmvale, about 120 kilometres northwest of Toronto, when he was killed.

The Special Investigations Unit (SIU), the civilian agency in Ontario that probes incidents of serious harm or death involving police, ultimately decided not to charge the officers involved. It was not an unexpected decision: No criminal charges have been laid against a police officer in Ontario in any of the 45 fatal shootings of civilians over the past decade.

Frustrated by the lack of information about the case, the Minty family and relatives of Levi Schaeffer, another man fatally shot last year by police, went to Ontario Superior Court. They want the court to order an end to practices such as officers consulting with lawyers before drafting their notes in these types of cases. What is unusual is that the families have the support of the SIU. Its director, Ian Scott, agreed that the vetting of notes and the potential for collusion when several officers retain the same lawyer are preventing the agency from conducting independent and timely investigations.

It is the first time in the two decades since the SIU was created that its director has complained publicly about impediments to investigating police.

Standing on the other side of the court aisle were lawyers representing every major police organization in Ontario.

"We have a pretty good model," said Ron Bain, executive director of the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police, in an interview. "The SIU has evolved over time to be more operationally sound. I am not hearing anything out of the Atttorney-General's office that the SIU needs changing."

Resisting change, however, may be a futile pursuit. The call for better police oversight is growing.

The Alberta and Manitoba governments are moving to greater civilian oversight of incidents of serious injury or death to a civilian involving police. The Toronto Police Services Board has agreed to a review of the actions that led to the arrest of hundreds of people at the G20 summit in June.

Perhaps most prominent are the recommendations of Thomas Braidwood, who presided over the inquiry into the death of Robert Dziekanski, who died after being Tasered at Vancouver International Airport in 2007. He is calling for the creation of an oversight agency with the broadest powers in the country. "The debate is no longer whether British Columbians should have a civilian-based investigative body, but what it should look like," wrote the retired B.C. Court of Appeal judge in his report released last month.

One recommendation, which by Mr. Braidwood acknowledges is potentially controversial, is that the new agency would eventually be made up only of civilian investigators. This is not the case in Ontario, where most SIU investigators are retired officers.

This is not something police in B.C. would necessarily oppose. "Our concern is only that the investigators have the proper training and expertise," said Clayton Pecknold, president of the B.C. Association of Chiefs of Police.

The association first said last fall that it supported a civilian oversight agency in B.C. "These investigations take up a lot of resources. We are happy to have an agency take this one on," said Mr. Pecknold, who also serves as deputy chief constable of the Central Saanich Police Service.

"While we have confidence in our past investigations, we need to deal with public perception. Let's get this up and running."

The B.C. Civil Liberties Association is also urging the province to move quickly to implement the Braidwood recommendations. "I am very optimistic. This is what the public wants," said Robert Holmes, president of the civil liberties group. "Oversight is not about criminal charges [against police], it is about public confidence."

For its part, the B.C. government indicated the new oversight agency would be up and running within a year. Attorney-General Michael de Jong declined a request for an interview.

Julian Falconer, who represents the Minty and Schaeffer families, said better oversight will increase public confidence in police. "It does police services no good to justify or conceal bad policing. Good police officers should not be left out of the equation of those who benefit from effective oversight," Mr. Falconer said.

In Ontario, there may also be political obstacles for the SIU, as well as the relatives of Mr. Minty and Mr. Schaeffer.

Superior Court Justice Wailan Low ruled recently that it was not for the courts to decide on whether the vetting of notes and one lawyer representing multiple officers violate Police Act regulations. While two provincial reports recommended an end to the practices, "whether the government adopts the suggestions in the reports and enacts laws to implement them is within its province alone," she concluded.

Lacking confidence that the Ontario government will act on those two reports, the families recently filed an appeal of Judge Low's ruling. That appeal is unlikely to be heard until the fall.



Often described in other provinces as the "gold standard" for civilian oversight of police panels, the Special Investigations Unit in Ontario, however, has been beset by controversy since it was created in 1990. Some facts:

-No fewer than seven government-commissioned reports have examined policing, oversight and the complaint process since the SIU was created.

-Its annual budget of $6.8-million (according to its 2008 annual report, the most recent available) is less than half that of the Police Ombudsman of Northern Ireland, even though Ontario has seven times the population.

-Between 2003 and 2008, criminal charges were laid against police in less than 2% of the more than 1,000 cases investigated.

-A 2008 report by Ontario Ombudsman Andre Marin, himself a former SIU director, suggested it was still a "fledgling" organization that was "administratively and technically challenged."

No comments: