The head of Ontario’s Special Investigations Unit is calling for sweeping reforms to the police watchdog to free it from government interference.
In a paper to be published in the Criminal Law Quarterly, SIU director Ian Scott recommends that the agency be made an independent office of the legislature. Currently, the SIU is a branch of the Ministry of the Attorney-General, which has allowed officials to muzzle its director when he criticizes police.
“It is clear from my experience that this working relationship can be the subject of interference and can undermine the independence necessary to [assure] the public that the Unit effectively operates at an arm’s length from government,” Mr. Scott, whose five-year term as director ends next month, writes in the article.
In 2009, for instance, the ministry delayed the publication of a report in which Mr. Scott outlined allegations of police not co-operating with the SIU. On another occasion, in 2010, a high-ranking bureaucrat privately rebuked Mr. Scott for publicizing a situation in which an officer’s notes were vetted by a lawyer before they were turned over to SIU investigators. The ministry finally backed off after the provincial ombudsman exposed these attempts at silencing Mr. Scott.
Such interference is a long-standing problem at the SIU. Howard Morton, who served as director from 1992 to 1995, says that, even back then, cabinet ministers pressured him not to embarrass police.
“There were members of the government who really wished I would just keep my mouth shut and make the police happy,” he said in an interview.
Mr. Scott is also calling for the government to ban police officers from having lawyers vet their notes before turning them over to the SIU and stopping lawyers from attending SIU interviews with police witnesses.
In the article, he also asks for new legislation to clearly define when the SIU can invoke its mandate. The SIU becomes involved when someone dies or is seriously injured in police custody, but there is no single definition of “serious injury.” The SIU uses one definition; some police forces use their own.
Attorney-General John Gerretsen told The Globe and Mail that the government will make some changes to the SIU “in the very near future,” based on suggestions by Patrick LeSage, former chief justice of the Ontario Superior Court, which do not go as far as those supported by Mr. Scott. Mr. LeSage recommended legislating a single definition of serious injury and requiring officers to complete their notes before the end of their shifts.
Mr. LeSage did not recommend making the SIU an independent office of the legislature, and Mr. Gerretsen was noncommital on the matter.
“It’s something that we can take a look at,” he said, “but it’s not part of the Lesage recommendations that we’re working at right now.”