The province’s police watchdog could soon be barred from investigating officers who administer naloxone to people who have overdosed on drugs because of a last-minute amendment to Ontario’s new police-oversight legislation.
The Special Investigations Unit is mandated to examine all incidents involving police that result in death, serious injury or allegations of sexual assault to determine if any criminal wrongdoing occurred.
In the midst of an opioid crisis that is killing thousands of people across the country every year, police services have argued that their officers should not be investigated for trying to save people from overdoses. Naloxone is an opioid antidote that reverses the effects of an overdose. The investigation would happen if it did not work and the person died.
SIU director Tony Loparco wrote in a letter to the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police in January that officers who have done nothing wrong should have nothing to fear from oversight, and he stressed the SIU will continue to invoke its mandate in these cases.
Earlier this month, the Ontario legislature passed the Safer Ontario Act, which aims to overhaul policing and police oversight. It included an amendment to allow the government to create regulations exempting officers who provide “immediate medical care” from SIU investigation.
The legislation will prohibit the SIU from investigating incidents “in a narrow set of circumstances where an official administers first-aid but has no other interaction with the individual,” Ministry of the Attorney-General spokesperson Brian Gray said on Monday.
In addition to naloxone, he said, “a regulation could include other life-saving measures such as CPR or the use of a defibrillator. The ministry is currently considering options with respect to such a regulation.”
Mr. Gray said while police officers would not be investigated, they would still have to alert the SIU. “This will ensure continued robust oversight of policing, while avoiding unnecessary investigations where police officers provide immediate medical care to a person,” he said.
Ron Bain, executive director of the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police, said on Monday that his organization is “encouraged” by the amendment – although it would prefer that police were exempted from having to report to the oversight body altogether in these cases, as British Columbia agreed last year to do.
Paramedics who administer naloxone are not subject to any investigation, Mr. Bain said. “It’s only the police officer that’s facing this type of inquiry.”
André Marin, former SIU director and ombudsman, called the exception “class warfare” against drug users – whom he argues should have the same oversight protections as anyone else interacting with police.
He said the amendment is a sign the government caved in to pressure from police, and he worries the loophole will lead to abuse.
“Police unions have shown they’re quite good at twisting the meaning of words to serve whatever purpose they want,” Mr. Marin said.
In Toronto, where police opted last month to equip front-line officers with naloxone, officers arrive to overdose calls before firefighters and paramedics (who already carry the drug) in just 2.7 per cent of cases.
The SIU launched its first investigation involving naloxone earlier this month in Peel, after a police officer administered the antidote and CPR to a 36-year-old man who was overdosing and eventually died. News of the SIU investigation outraged the local police association.
The Ministry of the Attorney-General said it hopes the Safer Ontario Act will be officially proclaimed by the Lieutenant-Governor as soon as possible.