Sewell: Cops won’t investigate fellow cops’ misdeeds

By John Sewell – 

2.1002271.sewellA new police complaints mechanism will finally be available in Ontario in the next few months. It’s been a long time coming.

When he was premier, Mike Harris scrapped the independent complaints mechanism instituted in the early 1980s, and put in its place a system where police investigated complaints themselves.

There were complaints about how badly things were handled, and in 2004 Premier Dalton McGuinty appointed Mr. Justice Edward LeSage to review the situation. LeSage proposed that investigations of complaints should be independent.

Legislation was introduced in 2006, passed in 2007, and in early 2008 long-term civil servant Gerry McNeilly was appointed head of the new bureau titled Office of the Independent Police Review. McNeilly says the office will be operational “this fall.”

To understand the difference an independent investigation of police complaints could make, it is worth looking at the RCMP, which investigates complaints itself. Paul Kennedy, chair of the Commission for Public Complaints against the RCMP, has just reported on his review of how the RCMP has dealt with some 600 complaints of serious allegations between 2002 and 2007.

He selected for an intensive look 28 cases where complaints alleged serious assault, sexual assault, or death.

Kennedy found that two thirds of these 28 cases were handled “inappropriately.” In one quarter of the cases the investigating office knew the officer being investigated personally, and in one third of the cases the investigating officer was at the same or a lower rank than the officer complained  of.

In short, RCMP investigating RCMP does not often result in fair or useful results.

This finding parallels the conclusions of the few other studies of how police complaints have been dealt with in Canada. Kennedy proposed that the RCMP institute a system of independent investigations, but RCMP leadership has rejected those proposals, as apparently has the Harper government.

There has been no detailed study of police investigations in Ontario in recent years so it is not known whether Kennedy’s results would apply to Toronto or to other forces in Ontario. In Ontario several other mechanisms have been in place, such as the Special Investigations Unit, a government agency that investigates any police incident involving serious injury or death, and the Ontario Civilian Commission on Police Services, which can hear an appeal from a complaint investigation by a police force.

Will the new Office of the Independent Police Review make a positive difference for complainants? Almost certainly. “Almost,” because the new process has some unfortunate limitations.

In many cases, the function of the Office will be to ask the police force being complained of to do the primary investigation, which the Office will then review. The assumption is that if the police investigators know there is independent oversight, then a fair investigation is likely to take place. In serious cases, the Office will do its own investigation, often using former police officers.

It’s fair to say the assumption of the power of oversight to do a good investigation is not as strong as an independent investigation. As well, former police officers sometimes don’t have the degree of independence one would wish—police culture is very strong. These are two limitations of the new system, and time will tell their impact.

The issue is not that police officers try to hide the truth, but rather than any group investigating its own members—think lawyers or doctors—has some in-built bias which is often difficult to notice or overcome.

But clearly the Office is a step forward, one that few politicians seem ready to take.In the case of Kennedy’s recommendations for the RCMP, no elected politicians on the government side of the House have voiced support. No other province in Canada is pushing for an independent system, such as is being established in Ontario. Obviously, politicians don’t like to stand up for reform when it comes to policing issues. They see the cost of being labelled as a police critic as too high.

That we are moving ahead in Ontario is a credit to the McGuinty government. Better yet, the change is being made without apparent objections from the police community, perhaps because Gerry McNeilly, in implementing the new system, has made some compromises which bothers the purists among us.

We await with great interest the Office of the Independent Police Review opening its doors and after six months we can draw our own conclusions.