The head of Ontario’s police watchdog has strongly criticized Toronto’s Police Chief, suggesting Bill Blair does not recognize the importance of maintaining public confidence in civilian police oversight.
Special Investigations Unit director Ian Scott lambasted Chief Blair for not responding to more than 100 letters detailing possible violations of the force’s duty to co-operate with the SIU over a 4.5 year period.
“He doesn’t answer my letters, and I think if he bought into the concept [of public confidence in civilian oversight], there would be a freer discourse and dialogue between the two of us,” Mr. Scott told The Globe and Mail on Thursday. “I’m trying to resolve these issues and I’ve managed to do it with other police services and I just can’t get anywhere with Toronto.”
Toronto Police spokesman Mark Pugash fired back, saying Mr. Scott was overstepping his authority by suggesting that Chief Blair should report to him.
The latest flare-up between the SIU and the country’s largest municipal police service – which have long had an antagonistic relationship – comes less than two weeks after the agency charged a Toronto officer with second-degree murder in the July shooting death of 18-year-old Sammy Yatim.
In the days after the high-profile shooting, which sparked widespread public concern about excessive force, Chief Blair pledged that his officers would “fully co-operate” with the SIU. On Thursday, Mr. Scott indicated that he is not impressed with that commitment.
“That’s the law of the province,” he said.
Under the Police Services Act, officers must co-operate with the SIU, a civilian agency that probes serious injuries, deaths and sexual assaults involving police in Ontario. For instance, forces are required to call the SIU immediately to investigate relevant cases and preserve crime scenes so as not to taint evidence, and witness officers have to answer questions.
Mr. Scott, whose five-year term as SIU director ends in October, said there were problems with the Toronto Police Service’s co-operation in nearly half of SIU cases – 106 out of 224 – that did not result in charges against its officers. Of his 106 letters outlining the issues between October, 2008, and March, 2013, Mr. Scott said Chief Blair provided a substantive response to only one, which was related to the issue of blacked-out notes.
“I think frankly he’s hurting himself when he doesn’t co-operate,” said Mr. Scott, who singled out Ontario Provincial Police Commissioner Chris Lewis for answering his letters and looking into his concerns.
In responding to Mr. Scott’s criticism, Mr. Pugash referred to part of a 2011 report by former Ontario chief justice Patrick LeSage saying that police chiefs, who also investigate cases in which the SIU is called, must report their findings to their police services board. "The SIU director’s authority does not extend to requiring the chief of police or OPP commissioner to investigate or report to him and should not be part of the SIU director’s communication with the chief of police or OPP commissioner," the three-page report says. It also says the SIU’s public statements should be confined to the integrity of its investigations.
“Can you imagine a situation where a public official is told you have no authority to do this and don’t do this and he is somehow trying to now turn that into we don’t get civilian oversight?” Mr. Pugash said. “That is just extremely roundabout and totally wrong.”
Mr. Scott acknowledged that Chief Blair is not required to respond to his letters, but said he has had success in addressing co-operation problems with other police forces.
Mr. Scott said the 106 problems with the Toronto Police Service included delayed notifications, officers refusing to answer questions and police interviewing witnesses after the SIU had invoked its mandate.
Chief Blair is expected to address the media on Friday, to announce a replacement for retired judge Dennis O’Connor, who announced on Wednesday that he was withdrawing from the internal review into the Yatim case. Mr. O’Connor cited a perceived conflict of interest because his law firm handled civil cases involving Toronto police and use of force.