Sewell: McGuinty drags heels on cop accountability protocols

By John Sewell –

There was considerable optimism 4-and-a-half years ago, in April 2004, when Michel Bryant, Attorney General of Ontario, announced he was beginning a process to determine how complaints against the police could be made into a rational and respectable system. Eight years earlier, in 1996, Premier Mike Harris had destroyed the old complaints system and instead said police in Ontario would investigate themselves in the few instances when the public was permitted to file a complaint.

But things haven’t proceeded very far since then. Yes, former judge Patrick LeSage was hired to make recommendations for a new complaints system, which he did by April of 2005 to considerable acclaim.

But it wasn’t until April 2006 that legislation was introduced, and it watered down many of LeSage’s proposals.

The legislation was put on a back burner and did not pass until early 2007. The McGuinty government hummed and hawed about proceeding to implement the law, finally hiring one Gerry McNeily to be the director of the new system. McNeily says his intention is to study the situation carefully and have the new system up and running by Fall 2009.

Five-and-a-half years to get a better system for complaints against the police means this is not a priority item for this government. If you are an innocent bystander and see the police doing something clearly wrong, the current process says your complaint will not be accepted by the Toronto police. That seems okay to this government.

If you wonder the extent of the problem, consider the report “Oversight Unseen” just issued by the Ontario Ombudsman. This report deals with the Special Investigative Unit (SIU), the provincial body that investigates any serious injury or death caused by police. It is the seventh provincial report on the SIU in the past 16 years.

The report says “Delays in police providing (to the SIU) notice of incidents, in disclosing notes, and in submitting to interviews are endemic…Police interviews (by the SIU) are rarely held with the regulatory timeframes and are all too often postponed—for weeks, sometimes for months.”

In short, the Ombudsman’s report makes it clear that even when there is a clear law intended to hold police accountable in cases where there is police action with serious injury or death, it doesn’t seem to be very effective.

Once again the attorney general has indicated the report will be taken very seriously, and action will be taken as soon as possible. If you use the example of how the provincial government has acted on the question of creating a reasonable complaints mechanism for the public, you’ll be talking six or seven years.

To keep this in perspective, remember what Judge Josiah Wood of British Columbia concluded in 2006 after he audited a random sample of 294 complaints from 11 independent municipal police forces in that province.

Judge Wood found that 56 investigations (19%) did not meet the “reasonable and appropriate” test. All but four of these 56 complaints concerned serious abuses of police authority: 36 dealt with allegations of excess use of force, five with allegations of wrongful arrest, and eight with allegations of wrongful search or seizure of property. In 20 of the complaints about excessive use of force by police, the judge concluded that the “findings, conclusions, or recommendations were unreasonable or inappropriate.”

There were 94 complaints of excessive use of force by police, and in not a single case did the police investigators conclude that the complaint was substantiated. He said, “Investigators seemed reluctant or casual about investigations of potentially criminal misconduct by police officers.” He found there were 46 cases where files were not forwarded to the Crown for criminal prosecution. He said “The factor which caused me the greatest concern… [was] the lack of complete acceptance by the police of the concept of full civilian oversight.” His full report is at

Maybe police in British Columbia are different than police in Ontario, but I doubt it.

We need better complaint and accountability mechanisms but they are not being provided by our political leaders.