Po­lice over­sight isn’t bro­ken, it was de­signed this way

Toronto Star - - OPINION - Des­mond Cole Des­mond Cole is a Toronto-based jour­nal­ist. His col­umn ap­pears every sec­ond Thurs­day.

Po­lice over­sight in On­tario isn’t bro­ken — it is de­signed to pro­tect po­lice from ac­count­abil­ity, and in that sense it’s work­ing just fine.

Af­ter years of pub­lic dis­con­tent, the pro­vin­cial gov­ern­ment re­cently launched a com­pre­hen­sive re­view of three po­lice over­sight bod­ies. The Spe­cial In­ves­ti­ga­tions Unit (SIU), which looks into any death, se­ri­ous in­jury, or al­le­ga­tion of sex­ual as­sault in­volv­ing po­lice, is the agency most tied to pub­lic trust, and there­fore the one most in need of an over­haul.

Thanks to Jus­tice Michael Tul­loch, who led the re­view and pub­lished his re­port last week, we have new clar­ity on the strate­gic dys­func­tion that is the SIU. Tul­loch has made 129 rec­om­men­da­tions for bet­ter po­lice over­sight, in­clud­ing dozens for the SIU. Many of Tul­loch’s rec­om­men­da­tions are painfully ob­vi­ous — some sug­gested im­prove­ments are so ba­sic to ac­count­abil­ity that the reader is left won­der­ing what kind of sick joke the SIU has been play­ing on us dur­ing its nearly three decades of op­er­a­tion.

The SIU has al­ways de­scribed it­self as an “in­de­pen­dent civil­ian agency” that over­sees po­lice, but that’s just word­play. The ma­jor­ity of SIU in­ves­ti­ga­tors are for­mer po­lice of­fi­cers. Now con­sider Tul­loch’s rec­om­men­da­tion that go­ing for­ward, at least 50 per cent of non­foren­sic SIU in­ves­ti­ga­tors should have a back­ground in some­thing other than polic­ing. Why main­tain even half of the spots for for­mer cops? The tra­di­tion of hav­ing for­mer po­lice in­ves­ti­gate cur­rent ones helps to ex­plain why more than 97 per cent of all SIU in­ves­ti­ga­tions end with­out an of­fi­cer be­ing crim­i­nally charged.

“The man­date of the SIU should in- clude all in­ci­dents in­volv­ing the dis­charge of a firearm by po­lice of­fi­cer at a per­son,” reads an­other rec­om­men­da­tion. Duh. The ab­sence of this rule only helps the ag­gres­sive, reck­less cops we all claim to dis­like. I hope this rec­om­men­da­tion is im­ple­mented, but it is just that — a rec­om­men­da­tion. The pro­vin­cial Lib­eral gov­ern­ment or­dered this re­view to sug­gest po­ten­tial changes, not to com­pel it­self to act.

Tul­loch also rec­om­mends that the SIU should “in­cor­po­rate anti-bias mea­sures into their re­cruit­ment, train­ing, ed­u­ca­tion and eval­u­a­tion of in­ves­ti­ga­tors.” An agency whose in­ter­ac­tions dis­pro­por­tion­ately in­volve dis­en­fran­chised peo­ple with a claim against po­lice should not need this rec­om­men­da­tion, but here we are.

On­tario At­tor­ney Gen­eral Yasir Naqvi praised Tul­loch’s work last week, then im­me­di­ately dodged mul­ti­ple ques­tions about whether he plans to im­ple­ment all 129 rec­om­men­da­tions. Naqvi did prom­ise to move on two ma­jor ideas right away. One is the col­lec­tion of de­mo­graphic data on SIU com­plainants, in­clud­ing their race, re­li­gion, gen­der and in­dige­nous sta­tus. This is the most un­am­bigu­ous vic­tory of Tul­loch’s re­port for vul­ner­a­ble peo­ple in On­tario so far.

Un­for­tu­nately, Naqvi’s other im­me­di­ate com­mit­ment shows how the SIU may still pro­tect po­lice in­stead of the pub­lic. Naqvi says his gov­ern­ment will re­lease all past and fu­ture SIU re­ports, but the gov­ern­ment will first redact the iden­ti­ties of every cop who has ever been in­ves­ti­gated. Even Tul­loch said iden­tify- ing po­lice “would not im­prove trans­parency in a mean­ing­ful way.” Lord have mercy.

If the SIU has in­ves­ti­gated a cur­rent po­lice of­fi­cer 10 times, the prov­ince will erase his name 10 times so the pub­lic is obliv­i­ous. No pub­lic ser­vant de­serves this much power, and po­lice have cer­tainly not earned it. Imag­ine a teacher or child care worker ar­gu­ing that an al­le­ga­tion they harmed a child should be pri­vate. But for po­lice, who have far more power, we con­tinue this de­struc­tive tra­di­tion.

Also, im­por­tant rec­om­men­da­tions are ab­sent from Tul­loch’s re­port. While he rightly rec­om­mends ex­pand­ing the def­i­ni­tion of “se­ri­ous in­jury” re­quired to open an SIU in­ves­ti­ga­tion, the po­lice’s use of stun guns is no­tably ab­sent. It’s still cool to run 50,000 volts of elec­tric­ity through a per­son’s body if you are the po­lice — here again, the lack of an au­to­matic in­ves­ti­ga­tion pro­tects po­lice in­stead of the pub­lic.

Pas­cale Diver­lus and Rod­ney Diver­lus of Black Lives Mat­ter Toronto, whose heroic protest last year pushed the gov­ern­ment to re­view po­lice over­sight, have writ­ten that “fam­i­lies of slain black peo­ple will not get jus­tice from a re­port that sits on a shelf col­lect­ing dust.” Im­ple­men­ta­tion is key, but it will only oc­cur when we dis­credit the unchecked rev­er­ence for po­lice author­ity that has made all this work nec­es­sary.

Above all, we must not leave im­ple­men­ta­tion up to Naqvi, who promised re­form on po­lice card­ing in 2015, but failed be­cause he re­fused to ac­knowl­edge the depth of en­trenched racism and po­lice power be­hind that prac­tice. To cite a fa­mous protest chant: The sys­tem isn’t bro­ken, it was built this way. Only those will­ing to ac­knowl­edge this can change it.

The SIU has al­ways de­scribed it­self as an “in­de­pen­dent civil­ian agency” that over­sees po­lice, but that’s just word­play. The ma­jor­ity of SIU in­ves­ti­ga­tors are for­mer of­fi­cers


On­tario At­tor­ney Gen­eral Yasir Naqvi, left, praised Jus­tice Michael Tul­loch’s re­port on po­lice over­sight.

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