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Friday, April 08, 2011

New rules urged for SIU probes

April 8, 2011
Curtis Rush and Dan Robson, Toronto Star

Officers under investigation in incidents of serious injury or death must not communicate with each other or share a lawyer, former chief justice Patrick LeSage has recommended.

LeSage issued a three-page report Thursday after a 15-month review of relations between police and the Special Investigations Unit, which probes such incidents.

The review was triggered when Ian Scott, director of the civilian watchdog agency, criticized Ontario’s police forces and unions for allowing officers to collude and conceal incriminating evidence in criminal investigations.

Speaking to reporters at Queen’s Park, LeSage said he hoped his review will address concerns that the system is failing.

“I think it will perhaps at least put aside some of the suspicions that I have heard that have occurred in the past,” he said.

Attorney General Chris Bentley said he was happy with LeSage’s “clear, simple and direct” recommendations, which will strengthen public confidence in the SIU. Bentley said he will act on the recommendations as quickly as possible.

“Are we going to move?” he said. “Yes.”

A recent Star investigation found that police officers across Ontario are treated differently than civilians when accused of seriously injuring or killing a person. In some cases, the SIU was unable to properly investigate.

The Star found examples of officers being allowed to delay writing notes and of sharing lawyers while involved in the same SIU review. It also highlighted concerns that officers were collaborating on stories to prevent the SIU from learning the truth.

The LeSage review addressed all these points.

He recommends officers involved in an incident, either as a witness or subject, cannot communicate with each other until the SIU probe is finished.

Officers who are witnesses in an SIU investigation cannot share a lawyer with the officer under review. And officers’ notes are to be completed at the end of a shift, unless otherwise excused by the chief.

LeSage also reminded lawyers who represent more than one officer not to share client information.

The recommendations apply to police services across Ontario, which operate under different rules and regulations. LeSage called on the province to review the legislation and regulations governing the SIU and its relationship with police within two years.

Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair said all LeSage’s recommendations are consistent with current force policy.

“I don’t see that any of it results in any significant change in the way we have been doing business,” Blair said.

However, opposition parties were quick to voice concerns with the review.

LeSage fails to address the issue of who police officers’ notes belong to and how they are handled, said Conservative justice critic Ted Chudleigh.

“A number of questions about that need some answers, and I didn’t see any answers coming out,” he said.

The report also omitted the issue of compelling officers to cooperate with an SIU investigation, said NDP justice critic Peter Kormos.

In September 2009, Scott announced he was unable to decide if an OPP officer was guilty of wrongdoing in the shooting death of Levi Schaeffer, a 30-year-old schizophrenic man from Peterborough. The officer and his partner were the only witnesses.

Scott said the officers had their notes vetted by a police union lawyer before submitting them to the SIU. His public comments sparked tension between the SIU and police unions.

Last January, the attorney general’s office appointed LeSage to conduct his review.

Lawyer Julian Falconer, who represents Schaeffer’s family, questioned the review’s clout.

Falconer said the province has “made a full-time hobby” of collecting recommendations and lacks “the political courage to take the police on” and enact laws immediately.

“It’s high time to stop the talk,” Falconer said.

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