Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservatives are looking to dial back parts of Bill 175, sweeping changes to policing introduced last year that significantly increased oversight rules, saying the law has unnecessarily undermined confidence in police.
“The general sense of the bill was disrespecting police officers,” said Laurie Scott, the Official Opposition’s community-safety critic. “We should be respecting the work of police officers in protecting our safety, not denigrating it. … People need to feel that they are never unsafe with police.”
If Mr. Ford’s party forms government after a spring election expected on June 7, Ms. Scott said that they would consult with policing associations and unions who have opposed the legislation to see what changes need to be made.
While police unions have pushed for modifications to the bill, the association of police chiefs warns it would be reckless to pull back on a law that promises a new level of accountability. The legislation, known as the Safer Ontario Act, was the first overhaul of policing rules in a generation and was meant to address concerns from minority groups about unjust treatment and concerns that police were doing an inadequate job of policing themselves.
Ontario’s more than 400-page legislation was designed to help deal with some of those issues. When it was passed by the legislature in March, after a torturous process that saw sniping between legislators and more than 200 amendments, Attorney-General Yasir Naqvi said the new law would give police the tools they need in a modern Ontario. “This bill is very much about strengthening the trust and respect between the police and the communities they serve,” he said at the time.
Joe Couto, the spokesman for the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police, said the group fears policing could become a “political football” between party leaders. Because of the coming election, where Premier Kathleen Wynne’s Liberals are facing a difficult challenge from Mr. Ford, “Bill 175 could fall prey to a political, versus, public safety lens,” he said.
Ms. Scott, who has questioned the legislation since it was first introduced, said that while it has some worthwhile sections, including a new Missing Persons Act and what she deemed a “reasonable approach” to suspension without pay for police officers who commit serious crimes, she felt the overall package was rushed and falls short.
The centerpiece of the bill is a complete overhaul of how Ontario’s policing bodies are held accountable. The act established a new office of Inspector-General, which can investigate and audit law-enforcement agencies.
Three existing police-oversight bodies were also revamped and given expanded mandates.
The Special Investigations Unit, currently known as the SIU, is to be renamed the Ontario Special Investigations Unit and will be able to investigate current, former and off-duty police officers, volunteer members and special-constable and First Nations police members.
The Office of the Independent Police Review Director will be renamed the Ontario Policing Complaints Agency under the law and would investigate all complaints against police officers. Finally, the Ontario Civilian Police Commission would be renamed the Ontario Policing Discipline Tribunal and would deal with adjudicating police disciplinary matters, removing that duty from police services.
“The oversight in the bill is going to be extremely costly and burdensome,” Ms. Scott said. “While everyone wants to see oversight, we don’t know where the resources will come from.”
Issues with police oversight were highlighted in early 2017 when The Globe and Mail reported after a 20-month investigation that one in five sexual-assault allegations reported to police in Canada was being dismissed as unfounded. After the unfounded investigation was published, law-enforcement agencies began the review of more than 37,000 cases and many, including a number of police services in Ontario, promised to revamp their approach to policing sexual violence.
According to Mr. Naqvi, the government worked on the bill, including numerous consultations, for five years before introducing it in the legislature last November.
While the bill has already become law, Ms. Scott said it’s unclear when many of its far-reaching changes will take effect. Some of the new powers for the oversight bodies might not be in place until after the June election.
Under a government run by Mr. Ford, she said police would be consulted on how the package should look. “You have to work with police officers on the front lines and their associations. They were quite upset with the government and didn’t feel like they were being listened to. They felt undermined and I wouldn’t blame them,” she said, adding that police morale has suffered as a result.
Desmond Cole, an activist and journalist, said it is distressing that the Conservatives are proposing to revamp a bill that, in his view, “wasn’t actually tough in terms of police oversight to begin with.”
Police unions should have no role in crafting how their members are overseen by the public, Mr. Cole said, explaining that their priority will always be to protect officers.
“You can’t ask the police how to do police oversight. You have to go above the police and say there are certain things we’re going to decide for you, whether you agree with them or not, because you don’t get all the power in this situation,” he said.
Bruce Chapman, president of the Police Association of Ontario (PAO), said they have been “vocal and strong” about their concerns with Bill 175, including that it might open up more policing functions to privatization. “That’s not for one second to say we’re not supportive of oversight,” he said.
One change in the act is that it clearly defines police responsibilities as those that can only be performed by a sworn officer. As an example of what that change could mean, Ontario’s Community Safety Minister said in November that police officers might not be the best people to monitor construction sites. The police association has worried that the change could mean more civilian workers in police-like roles.
“We needed a new Police Services Act, there’s no doubt about it,” Mr. Chapman said. But he doesn’t see the current omnibus act as a solution; arguing it should be broken down into six or seven different acts.
While the fate of the law might not be a ballot-box question for the average Ontarian, Mr. Chapman said it will be for the PAO’s 18,000 members.
According to Mr. Couto, the chiefs of police are worried that the future of the act will be decided by “who’s screaming the loudest.” The group’s biggest worry is that the legislation might be repealed.
“We would remind them this took six years,” he said. “To simply say we’re going to scrap six years of work would be … irresponsible."
While the bill is not perfect, he says the province’s chiefs of police by and large support it. “We’ve heard loud and clear that the status quo of policing is not great,” he said.