More police accountability needed after SIU probes

Mar 23, 2017 By Matthew Friedberg
It’s troubling that Ontario’s Special Investigations Unit (SIU) has highlighted new cases that involve problematic officer conduct by the Toronto police and that in some instances, the force violated their legal duty to co-operate with the watchdog, says Toronto criminal lawyer Matthew Friedberg.

“It’s a real problem that there is not more clarity and accountability in some of these matters,” he tells AdvocateDaily.com. “As a general principle, when there is an absence of consequences for peoples’ conduct, individuals tend not to be held accountable for what they do in the same way as when real consequences exist.”

Friedberg, partner with Caramanna Friedberg LLP, comments after the Toronto Star wrote about more than 150 letters sent from the director of the SIU to the Toronto police chief, which were obtained by the newspaper through a Freedom of Information request. The letters point to cases of what the watchdog deems problematic officer conduct that the SIU uncovered during its investigations of police-involved deaths, serious injuries or allegations of sexual assault, says the article.

While Toronto police say they take action when necessary for each concern the SIU raises, the watchdog highlights instances where it alleges that police failed to immediately notify the SIU of a serious civilian injury and also interfered with a scene after the watchdog began investigating, the Star says.

In one allegation, “SIU acting director Joseph Martino said officers risked jeopardizing public confidence in an investigation into a January 2015 police-involved shooting when they attempted to access and copy security footage before civilian investigators — an issue identical to the one that would arise again six months later in the high-profile fatal shooting of Andrew Loku,” says the article.

The SIU describes itself on its website as "a civilian law enforcement agency, independent of the police, that conducts criminal investigations into circumstances involving police and civilians that have resulted in serious injury, death or allegations of sexual assault."

The Star notes that the SIU director writes a letter to the Toronto police chief after every watchdog investigation is complete.

While the majority of the letters obtained by the newspaper raise no issues with officer conduct, in the instances where it was identified by the SIU, its director often requested the chief to look into it and report back, says the article.

“But police chiefs are not legally obligated to respond to these letters — Toronto police have ‘made it clear’ they do not respond in writing, an SIU spokesperson said — because the SIU has no authority under the Police Services Act to ask chiefs to investigate officer conduct,” says the article.

André Marin, a former Ontario ombudsman and past SIU director, tells the Star that the SIU repeatedly raises the same complaints that are “continually and regularly ignored by police services with impunity.

“The problem here is that there is no consequence attached to police thumbing their nose at the SIU and the law,” he says.

Marin and others say the time is right for change since the Ontario Police Services Act is being amended and the SIU is under review by Judge Michael Tulloch.

Friedberg agrees.

He says a system-wide review is needed and changes are necessary to ensure police are held accountable when the SIU says officers breached their legal obligations.

It's not good enough that police aren't held accountable after the SIU raises concerns, he says. It goes to the heart of why the watchdog body exists, he adds.

Friedberg notes the information from the SIU follows some high-profile instances of problematic police conduct in recent years, including the G20 protests — after which a senior Toronto police officer was found guilty of misconduct — and the shooting death of Sammy Yatim at the hands of a Toronto police officer, who was found guilty of attempted murder in 2016.

He says the advent of cellphone videos and social media has resulted in the public generally demanding more accountability from police — and that is something that can’t be ignored.

It's critical to maintain confidence in the police, he says.