In his five years leading Ontario’s police watchdog, Ian Scott has overseen major probes into the Toronto G20 summit and the killing of Sammy Yatim, battled police when they failed to co-operate with his investigators, and stood up to the provincial government when it tried to muzzle him.
Today, the agency charges more than double the number of officers it did before he took over, and enjoys a vastly raised public profile.
To some supporters, Mr. Scott is the best director the Special Investigations Unit has ever had. To some police chiefs and union leaders, he is an overly aggressive official who oversteps his jurisdiction.
And as he prepares to hand the reins of the SIU next month to Crown attorney Tony Loparco, Mr. Scott pulls no punches.
“At the end of the day, this is about public confidence in civilian oversight, it’s not about police confidence in civilian oversight,” he says in an interview at SIU headquarters, a non-descript white building in a Mississauga industrial park. “If the police don’t accept the SIU, my answer is: That’s too bad. There’s a public confidence issue which is more important.”
Slender and graying, the 61-year-old looks more unobtrusive civil servant than hard-biting pit bull. But Mr. Scott’s CV shows a longstanding willingness to tackle tough cases, many of them involving police accountability.
Raised in the Toronto suburb of Port Credit and called to the bar in 1983, he spent most of his career as a Crown attorney. From 1991 to 1997, he worked in the justice prosecutions branch, a special team whose job was to handle cases against police officers and fellow lawyers. He successfully prosecuted OPP officer Ken Deane, who shot dead First Nations protester Dudley George during the Ipperwash standoff; he also led the case against Ken Murray, the lawyer who withheld serial killer Paul Bernardo’s infamous videotapes from the authorities (Mr. Murray was acquitted).
The job entailed working with the then-fledgling SIU. The agency’s director at the time, Howard Morton, recalls soliciting Mr. Scott’s opinion on his decisions.
“He was someone I looked to very much for very sound, independent, fair advice,” Mr. Morton says. “It wasn’t pro-police, it wasn’t anti-police. It was good, lawyerly advice.”
Between stints as a Crown, Mr. Scott worked on the other side of the fence, as a criminal defence lawyer. In his highest-profile case, he represented two police officers at the inquest into the killing of Edmond Yu, a schizophrenic man slain by police on a Toronto bus.
When the post of SIU director became vacant in 2008, it was a natural fit.
Mr. Scott took over an organization under a cloud. Provincial Ombudsman André Marin had just released a scathing report, calling the agency a “toothless tiger,” too timid to stand up to police officers and too slow to get investigations moving.
The new director created a new dispatch system to send investigators to the scenes of incidents faster. He also began a practice of informing police chiefs every time their officers refused to co-operate with his agency. And he tackled another issue: Police union lawyers were vetting the notes of officers involved in serious incidents before the notes were given to SIU investigators.
He fought the practice. First, he tried the quiet route, speaking privately with Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair and making submissions to the civilian board that oversees the force. When that didn’t work, he went public. In press releases, Mr. Scott highlighted cases where he believed lawyers’ handling of police notes hampered the investigation. He also gave media interviews to describe instances of police not co-operating.
Mr. Scott's critics argue he exceeded his authority. Toronto Police Association president Mike McCormack says that, in many instances, Mr. Scott took issue with perfectly legal practices – police officers bringing lawyers to SIU interviews, for instance – creating the false impression officers had done something wrong.
“We felt the way he portrayed things to the public was not accurate,” Mr. McCormack says. “It wasn't accurate to say we weren't co-operating, we were co-operating fully. It created an unfair bias against policing.”
The situation peaked in the wake of the G20. The SIU investigated the six most serious cases of protester injury at the summit. In two of these, Adam Nobody and Dorian Barton, Mr. Scott found evidence of police brutality – but that officers would or could not identify fellow cops who may have been involved. When Mr. Scott publicized his findings, Chief Blair admonished him in a radio interview. How could Mr. Scott imply there was criminal wrongdoing when he had not charged anyone? the chief asked.
The war of words led more witnesses to come forward, bringing videos and photos to the press. The SIU reopened the investigations and charged officers in both of them. The cases were a lesson in the power of public profile.
“It became almost a joint investigation [with the media]. It was kind of bizarre in that sense,” Mr. Scott says. “Every day when you came to work, you didn’t know what was going to be in the paper and what was going to be nudging the investigation along.”
Less public than Mr. Scott’s fight with police – but no less intense – was one he waged with his masters at the Ministry of the Attorney-General. Upset at Mr. Scott’s attempts to publicly shame unco-operative police, they refused to allow him to publish an article explaining problems with police notes in 2009. The following year, when he raised the notes issue in a press release, a high-ranking civil servant personally rebuked him. It was not until Mr. Marin exposed these actions in a 2011 report that the ministry left Mr. Scott alone.
Today, the government’s tone, at least publicly, has changed. “I’ve been highly impressed with the detail of the investigations, by both the director and by the investigators that work under him,” Attorney-General John Gerretsen says.
The SIU’s profile grew further with the police shooting of Mr. Yatim on a Toronto streetcar this July. The incident spurred large protests against police and, much like Mr. Nobody’s case, the entire incident was videoed by a bystander. Within a month, Mr. Scott laid a rare second-degree murder charge against Constable James Forcillo.
“Video changes everything. Once the video is in the public forum, it’s going to increase public interest,” he says. “This theme is going to increase. What percentage of people have cellphone videos? It’s incredibly powerful evidence.”
How has Mr. Scott’s work changed police accountability in the province?
Some forces, he says, are now more willing to co-operate, or at least to listen to him when he raises problems. He singles out OPP commissioner Chris Lewis for praise. The Windsor Police Service has also become more co-operative, following a particularly ugly saga in which officers were accused of trying to cover up a brutality case. The number of cases the SIU investigates has also increased, which Mr. Scott attributes to the agency’s higher visibility.
Peter Rosenthal, a Toronto lawyer who has represented numerous victims and their families in police shootings, gives Mr. Scott high marks for the thoroughness of his investigations. “I like and respect Ian Scott very much personally,” he says. “He’s under very strong pressure. The pressure from the police who explicitly and implicitly resist the SIU. And there’s pressure from the public to do the right thing.”
Mr. Morton says Mr. Scott has done a good job pushing police to co-operate, and in making even-handed decisions. “He’s certainly been, in my view, the best SIU director in every aspect,” he says. “In the fairness aspect, the hard work, the diligence, the ability to stand up to the police when it was right to do so.”
It hasn’t always been easy, and Mr. Scott concedes that, no matter what he does, he is bound to disappoint someone.
“I’ve had to do debriefings with families in cases where I’ve said the shooting was justified … it’s a huge loss and they’re trying to grapple with it. I understand that. But I have to be very careful about what the focus of this place is, and the focus is criminal law,” he says. “They are very difficult meetings, but that goes with the job. I’m not here to make friends.”