The road ahead for police accountability in Ontario

A recent report on Ontario’s oversight bodies has been hailed as the beginning of a new era for police accountability in this province. But will it really deliver?
By TVO Current Affairs - Published on April 21, 2017
Justice Michael Tulloch at a podium
Justice Michael Tulloch at a press conference in April released his recommendations on enhancing police oversight in Ontario. (Frank Gunn/CP)

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Earlier this month, Ontario Appeal Court Justice Michael Tulloch released a comprehensive report on improving transparency and accountability in the three oversight agencies of the Ontario Provincial Police: the Special Investigations Unit, the Ontario Civilian Police Commission, and the Office of the Independent Police Review Director. Nearly a year in the making, the report and its 129-point list of recommendations address concerns about police accountability that civilians and activist groups have been raising for decades.

The report recommends releasing all SIU investigations of police-involved civilian deaths that don't result in charges and collecting race-based data — both of which the province has green-lit already. But with a long list of tasks, several police bodies to consult, and an upcoming provincial election, how much is likely to change? We asked legal and criminological experts for their insights.

Mary A. Bird is an area director at Aboriginal Legal Services; Tammy Landau is an associate professor of criminology at Ryerson University; Awkasi Owusu-Bempah an associate professor of criminology at the University of Toronto.

The SIU has been subject to a number of reviews over the past 20 years. How does this one differ? Is there anything new here?

Bird: Former ombudsman André Marin made many of these same recommendations. By and large the recommendations in Tulloch’s report reflect other reviews. While this report is more thorough, so was its mandate to cover police oversight generally. The differences are largely in detail as opposed to kind.

Landau: There are some very specific recommendations in this report that are much stronger than ones from previous reviews. For example: expanding the mandate of the SIU beyond incidents that involve serious injury or sexual assault to include every time a firearm is discharged, or clarifying the “duty to co-operate” with an SIU investigation. Perhaps most important to keep in mind is that Justice Tulloch's review included all existing police oversight bodies. In order for any of the recommendations regarding the SIU to have their most significant impact, recommendations regarding the OIPRG and OCPC need to be considered alongside those directed specifically toward the SIU.

Many have suggested that the names officers under investigation for civilian deaths be released — yet Tullochs report says this isnt necessary. What do you think?

Landau: This is perhaps the recommendation that has most disappointed many members of the public. The concern is that someone working on behalf of the state could cause the death of a member of the public and remain anonymous. That said, Justice Tulloch has considered this particular issue in the broader context of all his recommendations. If they are implemented, there would be a dramatic increase in the transparency of the SIU’s decisions in any given investigation. I think one could reasonably argue that naming the officer does not add anything to that. It’s also important to remember that Justice Tulloch is recommending that an inquest be held every time a police officer’s use of force results in a civilian death, regardless of whether charges are laid. Officers’ names would be made public at this point, and under more circumstances than those only investigated by the SIU.

While issues of accountability and transparency are about the public, I believe there are, in some circumstances, times when there are limits to the lengths we can go in order to protect those who have been granted extraordinary powers. They are, at the same time, also taking extraordinary risks, generally on our behalf.

The province has committed to implementing some of the report’s recommandations immediately. What recommendations should they prioritize?

Landau: In my view, the release of previous SIU reports should be given priority. While doing this will be time-consuming and costly, it’s a recommendation that can be immediately acted upon: it doesn’t require any legislative or organizational reform, as do many of the others. It can also have an immediate impact on members of the community who have been left in the dark (and often grieving) regarding a civilian death involving police, with no clear idea about how their case was handled or why certain decisions were (or, more likely, were not) taken.

Owusu-Bempah: I must commend Justice Tulloch for making demographic data collection, and race-based data in particular, a key recommendation of his report. Police oversight mechanisms in the province have emerged largely as a result of advocacy from racialized communities, often following perceived abuses of police power. Tulloch’s report itself was initiated in the wake of demonstrations following the police killing of Andrew Loku.

Although such data is often collected, Canadian police agencies are reluctant to publicly release data disaggregated by race, and this reluctance extends to police oversight bodies. This data, however, is necessary in order to identify racial disparities in policing outcomes and to uncover possible discrimination.

For example, a 2006 report by the University of Toronto criminologist Scot Wortley, based on data from the SIU, noted that Black and Aboriginal Canadians are disproportionately involved in police use-of-force cases in Ontario, including police killings. This was a good first step in understanding how certain police practices — this time the use of force — affect different social groups. However, this report is more than a decade old and the demographic make-up of the province and its major cities have since changed.

André Marin has said “cops will freak out” if Ontario acts on the report’s recommendations. How has the report been received among provincial police bodies so far?

Bird: Marin is absolutely right. The thin blue line is inviolable in the eyes of police organizations. Until there is a complete restructuring of oversight and a complete change of mindset by the police, that will not change. I am not unsympathetic to the dangers that they face on the job; however, it is their job. Quite frankly, if you look at rates of injury and death in careers, police are way down the line. Farmers, fishers, loggers, miners, and construction workers are injured or killed far more frequently. There has been a complete loss of perspective as to what the job of the police is.

Owusu-Bempah: I think the Police Association of Ontario’s response is actually quite balanced and fair. It recognized that Ontario has a broad mechanism for police oversight, acknowledged its willingness to work with the government to implement the recommendations, and reiterated its commitment to protecting the interests of its members.

However, Marin’s suggestion that “cops will freak out” is not without merit. Police unions often lash out at politicians and community organizations who suggest the need for further police oversight and accountability, typically arguing such measures will jeopardize either officer safety, community safety, or both. For example, police associations, including the Police Association of Ontario, pushed back against measures to reform carding in the province. Hopefully police associations will recognize that the recommendations proposed in the Tulloch report will help to rebuild public trust and confidence in the police, ultimately to the benefit of their members and society at large.

CORRECTION: This article originally misstated when former ombudsman André Marin had made his SIU recommendations. TVO regrets the error.

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