In the 23 years since it was formed, Ontario’s Special Investigations Unit has pursued charges against 21 police officers involved in on-duty deaths, securing convictions against three of them.
Depending on how you view these statistics, they can be used to buttress both criticism from law enforcement that the SIU embarks on flimsy cases and public concern that police aren’t subject to proper investigations. But in spite of the attacks from both sides, the SIU, an arm’s-length body that offers civilian monitoring of police, is an increasingly common template for oversight across Canada.
On Monday, the SIU laid the second murder charge in its history against a member of the Toronto police. Constable James Forcillo will be taken into custody Tuesday on a charge of second-degree murder in the shooting death this summer of Sammy Yatim. The teenager was killed after he brandished a small knife on a streetcar in late July, sparking protests and calls for justice. Last week Police Chief Bill Blair appointed a retired judge to review use-of-force practices, a probe which will not conflict with criminal proceedings against Constable Forcillo.
Ontario’s SIU was formed in 1990 and is mandated to investigate cases involving police in which a person dies, is seriously injured or alleges sexual assault.
The evolution to this sort of oversight has been a gradual process. The public lost faith with officers being investigated by their own employers and the job was handed over to other police forces, on the premise that they would be more impartial. That is still the model in parts of the country, though the SIU approach is gaining steam.
In Quebec, legislation establishing the Bureau des enquêtes indépendantes was passed this spring, though it could take another two years to have the office up and running. British Columbia has also set up the Independent Investigation Office, which became operational last September, to probe police-related incidents involving death or serious harm.
Few cases the SIU investigates result in charges of manslaughter, which is a homicide committed without intention to cause death. This has been laid nine times, none of which resulted in a conviction. Even more unusual is a second-degree murder charge, which indicates that the SIU believes the officer performed a deliberate, though unplanned, killing. These have been laid only three times since the SIU was formed, including an upping of one of the nine manslaughter charges. One of these charges of second-degree ended in an acquittal and the other cases are before the courts.
Regardless of the type of oversight, convictions are extremely rare in Canada after people die during interactions with police.
Hugh Dawson was killed in Scarborough during a drug squad takedown in 1997. Police said that they stormed his car and broke windows on both sides, sparking a struggle with the seat-belted man. He was hit with nine bullets, most of them from Detective Constable Richard Shank’s weapon, and died of his injuries. The officer was tried twice on manslaughter charges, the first ending in a hung jury and the second resulting in his acquittal.
Robert Dziekanski was tasered repeatedly and died at Vancouver International Airport in 2007 after causing a ruckus. The four officers involved were not charged in the death of the Polish migrant, though a commission of inquiry later found that they had not been justified in using a Taser and had deliberately misrepresented their actions.
Anthony Griffin was shot in the forehead by Montreal police Constable Allan Gosset in 1987. The officer testified that his gun discharged accidentally after he drew it to scare the 19-year-old into surrendering. The teenager was killed. The officer was acquitted twice.
Michael Wade Lawson was 17 and behind the wheel of a stolen car when two Peel Regional Police constables opened fire. Their lawyer said they had feared for their lives during the 1998 incident and fired six shots at the vehicle, one of them hitting the teen in the back of the head. They were acquitted.
Eric Osawe, a Nigerian-born father of two, was shot dead in 2010 during a drugs raid on a west Toronto apartment. Constable David Cavanagh was charged with manslaughter, which was later upped to second-degree murder. The charges were dismissed by a judge in March of 2013, but the Crown sought to continue with a manslaughter charge. The judge reserved his decision.
Tony Romagnuolo was killed in 1998 when York Region officers sought to arrest his son, Lorenzo. The son resisted and the father was shot dead when he tried to intervene. Constable Randy Martin was charged with second-degree murder and found not guilty at trial.
Darren Varley died in 1999 after being shot during a scuffle in a jail cell in Pincher Creek, Alta., following an arrest for drunkeness, prompting a second-degree murder charge for RCMP Constable Mike Ferguson. Twice the officer’s trials ended in hung juries. In a third trial he was convicted of manslaughter with a firearm and was sentenced to four years in prison.
Otto Vass got into a fight in 2000 at a Toronto convenience store, sparking a called to police. Several officers attended and Mr. Vass punched one of them during a struggle to subdue him. He collapsed at the scene and died, his death later attributed by doctors to a fat embolism released into his lungs. The four officers were found not guilty of manslaughter.
With a report from Stephanie Chambers