W5: Is Special Investigations Unit a 'toothless tiger'?
Patti-Ann Finlay, W5
Published Saturday, April 9, 2011 6:55PM EDT
A 21-year battle between Ontario's Special Investigations Unit, police forces, and various police associations has left the SIU a "toothless tiger," according to some.
Responsible for investigating police officers involved in the serious injury or death of civilians, critics say the SIU hasn't been able to do its job because of police interference condoned and even encouraged by police associations.
Not new problems for the SIU
When W5 sat down with Ontario Ombudsman Andre Marin, author of a 2008 report on the SIU, it soon became apparent that problems identified by the former SIU director persist to this day.
Marin's report entitled "Oversight Unseen," identifies crucial issues affecting the efficacy of the SIU.
The more glaring and disturbing problems identified by Marin include delays in police forces notifying SIU of an incident; resistance by subject and witness officers to disclosing their notes without prior vetting by a lawyer; shared legal counsel by the suspect officer and witness officers; and reluctance by police officers to submit to SIU interviews.
Notification to SIU
On the issue of delayed notification to the SIU, Marin asserts "when the legislation says immediate notification, how can you be more clear than the word immediate ... if a police agency decides to call three days later, they'll get I presume a complaint letter from the SIU which will or will not be answered. But there's no consequence for that police agency."
Police Notes and Interviews
The Ombudsman explains what should happen in a SIU investigation where police co-operate. "SIU cases with the right level of co-operation should always be resolved in a matter of days, not weeks and months."
The delay in the delivery of notes and interviews with officers can mean a protracted and weakened investigation.
In his 2008 report, Marin argued for more prompt interviews with witness officers, stating "our investigation found that the problem of delayed witness officer interviews has persisted to this day, and continues to compromise the integrity of the SIU's investigative process."
The Blue Wall
At the root of problems with the way the SIU conducts investigations is what Marin calls "the thin blue line." Marin says, "the police unions take control of the situation...they will defend and protect members regardless of whether or not they believe that person has committed a wrong doing."
Marin's observations echoed an earlier study on the SIU, released in 2003, for the Attorney General. Retired Justice George Adams also noted "the difficulty for the SIU has been in dealing with the PAO [Police Association of Ontario.]"
Larry Molyneaux, President of the Police Association of Ontario, stands by his association's position. In response to Marin's concerns, Molyneaux told W5, "I find that report being very biased and very theatrical, and I have no respect for that report whatsoever."
Molyneaux firmly believes that all officers must have the right to seek counsel prior to handing over notes or submitting to interviews and says sharing counsel only happens occasionally in remote areas of the province.
According to Marin, stronger legislation and support from the Attorney General is the only answer to achieving a more effective SIU. "That's why we've been emphasizing to the Ministry of the Attorney General that it has a role to play in backing up the SIU" said Marin. "The director of the SIU cannot cause consequences to happen to police agencies who thumb their nose to civilian oversight. So that's where the rest of government needs to come in and they've been rather invisible through all of this."
Ontario Attorney General, Chris Bentley told W5 the issue is being studied. "We have former Chief Justice LeSage who is doing some very important and good work right now, to see if we can not only improve communications but figure out how to deal with some of the issues that have been around for twenty years," said Bentley.
Five weeks after W5 caught up with the Attorney General, and two days before the W5 broadcast, LeSage's report was released.
After a 15-month review of the SIU and police relations, the three-page report calls for a number of significant changes including the recommendation that witness officers and subject officers not be allowed to share legal counsel. Lesage also recommended that officers involved in a SIU investigation not be allowed to communicate with each other about the incident.
The Attorney General has vowed to act swiftly on LeSage's recommendations.