MIL-OSI Global: Does the Ontario Special Investigations Unit need a broader mandate to improve police oversight?

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Source: The Conversation – Canada – By Kate Puddister, Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, University of Guelph

At the end of April, just outside of Toronto, a police pursuit of a robbery suspect ended in a fatal vehicle collision. Four people were killed, including two grandparents and their infant grandchild, as well as the person being pursued by the police.

The Special Investigations Unit (SIU) of Ontario, a police oversight agency, has launched an investigation into the police conduct to determine if criminal charges are warranted.

The SIU is staffed by civilian investigators who look into incidents involving the public and Ontario police officers that result in serious injury, the use of a firearm, allegations of sexual assault or death. The SIU determines if police action (or inaction) is criminal and if so, it charges police officers with criminal offences.

The SIU plays a vital role in providing oversight of Ontario police officers. But how effective is the agency in practice?

A CBC news report on the high-speed car chase on Ontario’s 401 highway that led to the deaths of four people.

Reports to the SIU

In our recent research paper, we examined all investigations completed by the SIU between 2017 and 2020. During this period, the SIU received 1,245 reports of incidents covered by its mandate. More than 90 per cent of these reports came from police forces directly.

This high rate of police notification reflects the fact that in Ontario, police forces are required to report to the SIU whenever an officer is involved in an incident that falls under the SIU’s mandate. There have been, however, high-profile cases of police forces failing to notify the SIU.

Ontario’s Special Investigations Unit Act requires the SIU to “endeavour to ensure” that it completes investigations within 120 days. We found the average length of completion to be 300 days for full investigations that did not result in criminal charges. In 70 per cent of the incidents fully investigated by the SIU, the police were noted as being in the process of investigating or intercepting criminal activity.

Most SIU investigations involve people seriously injured while in police custody, making up 57 per cent of all reports. Sexual assault allegations are the second most common occurrence investigated by the SIU, followed by vehicle injuries.

Death investigations are also a significant part of the SIU’s work. Twelve per cent of all investigations involve firearm and vehicle deaths, custody deaths, as well as suicides where police methods of prevention and intervention failed.

Some have argued that police should not be the primary responders for people in mental health distress. Our research shows that in over a third of deaths investigated by the SIU, the deceased person was noted as having a mental health disability or experiencing suicidal ideation.

How often are police charged by the SIU?

When a report is made to the SIU, there are three possible outcomes.

The first possibility is termination. This is where the SIU decides not to pursue an investigation. This happens when the incident reported falls outside of the SIU’s jurisdiction, or where the agency deems there is “patently nothing to investigate.”

Nearly forty per cent of reports were terminated by the SIU between 2017 and 2020.

The second possibility is that the SIU completes a full investigation and decides criminal charges are unwarranted. This is the most common outcome: with nearly 57 per cent of all reports unsubstantiated by the SIU.

The final possibility, which is also the rarest outcome, is that the SIU substantiates the report and lays criminal charges against the officers involved. Only 3.5 per cent of reports resulted in criminal charges.

The low charge rate speaks in part to the unique difficulties of investigating alleged police criminality. Police work often occurs out of public view, evidence in these cases is often lacking and as “criminal justice insiders,” police are afforded particular privileges in the legal process.

Room for reform?

The SIU is considered a pioneer in Canadian police oversight, but there is room for reform. Although it plays a fundamental role in police accountability, the SIU has a very narrow mandate.

The SIU can only charge officers with criminal offences after an incident has taken place and harm has potentially been caused. This is a necessary, but very high standard. Importantly, this criminal law focus means the SIU can do little to prevent police violence and misconduct from occurring in the first place.

The SIU’s narrow jurisdiction can be compared to other police oversight agencies like the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland (PONI), which is able to consider all types of complaints against police and has the power to conduct reviews of police policy.

Policy reviews can play a vital role in addressing institutional and systemic issues that may prevent future cases of police misconduct. Because PONI is responsible for all police accountability in Northern Ireland, public knowledge of the agency is very high. This can be contrasted with the police oversight systems in Ontario, where a complex network of agencies holds responsibility for police oversight and accountability.

In the case of the fatal police pursuit near Toronto, the SIU can only investigate if the officer’s conduct clearly departs from a reasonable standard of care, making it criminal. It cannot review police policy regarding car chases, and it cannot make formal recommendations for policy change.

When it comes to the SIU and police oversight more generally, another persistent area for reform is transparency with the public. While the SIU has increased its sharing of information with the public in recent years, more efforts could be made to engage with communities on an ongoing basis, beyond individual investigations.

Kate Puddister has previously received funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

Danielle McNabb has previously received funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

ref. Does the Ontario Special Investigations Unit need a broader mandate to improve police oversight? –

MIL OSI – Global Reports