Gov’t must make SIU work

Someone is shot in a city ‘hot spot’. There are witnesses. Many, in fact. They may have information about how the incident transpired. However, no one comes forward to tell police what they saw or know. There is tremendous reluctance to go on the record. Investigating officers express their frustration in the media. “People need to cooperate with the police; we need witnesses to come forward so that we can solve this crime,” they plead.

It is just another violent act that will probably go unsolved in our city.

But, this pattern emerges also with frustrating frequency when the situation involves a police officer whose actions result in injury or death of a civilian.

When such takes place, the Police Services Act requires that the Special Investigations Unit (SIU), the civilian body set up to investigate such incidents, is notified immediately. But, according to a report by Ontario Ombudsman Andre Marin (himself a former director of the SIU) made public last month, in just about every such incident there is resistance by the police and their superiors to cooperate with the SIU. Some police officers, from the chief on down, flatly refuse even to talk to the SIU.

Moreover, before SIU investigators ever get a chance to review the notes of witness officers, those officers are regularly advised, it has been said, to hold off on making notes and not to do so before consulting lawyers provided by their union.

Complaints of this nature have come from, among others, lawyer Julian Falconer on behalf of families following the death of a relative at the hands of police and unanswered questions following these fatalities.

According to Falconer and Marin, while officers directly involved in the incidents, and their partners, so-called witness officers, are not to consult with each other before being interviewed by the SIU, a pattern emerges in which officers are first counselled by union lawyers and the reports presented by both incident officers and witness officers are frequently coordinated, in direct contravention of the rules of such investigation proceedings.

All this despite the Ombudsman’s recommendations on transparency made in 2008 which clearly have been ignored by the system which run interference between the SIU and police officers.

Marin’s report indicates that SIU director, Ian Scott, wrote 227 letters to police chiefs in Ontario “reminding them of their duty to cooperate”, yet most did not respond. In the case of Toronto police chief, Bill Blair, 82 such letters went to him from Scott. Blair, we understand, replied to just one.

What this practice does is cast doubt on the integrity of officers involved in such incidents, for there is no way of clearly determining that their actions are above question. The presumption need not be one of guilt or wrongdoing, but the act of evading questioning and refusing to present officers’ notes gives the impression that officers have something to hide.

Furthermore, when the SIU, using weak information, makes determinations that officers were acting within the law, the integrity of the civilian body is also in question. The civilian body has come to be viewed as merely a rubber stamp for Ontario’s police forces.

Whatever the good intentions were when the SIU was created 20 years ago to “increase the confidence of the people of Ontario in their police services by conducting professional and independent investigations”, those goals have, from a public point of view, so far not been fully met.

It is up to the Ontario government to make this body work. Does it have the will? Or are its members afraid to cross the police?

Either this $7-million-a-year agency must be empowered to enforce its authority over those it is tasked with investigating or the government will have to explain why it is wasting taxpayers’ money to keep it going.

The SIU must be able to carry out its investigations without hindrance backed up by meaningful penalties for failure on the part of any police organization to cooperate with its investigations. Or, maybe, it should be just shut down.

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