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Canada Ontario police reforms would ‘completely subvert’ watchdog’s independence, director says

The head of Ontario’s civilian police watchdog has warned the provincial government that its proposed police reforms would “completely subvert” his agency’s independence and open the door to “political interference.”

Tony Loparco, director of the province’s Special Investigations Unit, says Premier Doug Ford’s Bill 68, introduced last month, could “impede the SIU’s future ability to conduct timely and thorough investigations” of potential police wrongdoing.

In a nine-page letter to the the Ontario Legislature’s standing committee on justice policy, which is reviewing the draft legislation, Mr. Loparco calls for changes to the bill’s proposed rewording of the SIU’s mandate, which would restrict the agency to investigating police officers only when an incident “may have resulted from criminal conduct by an official.”

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He warns this could expose the SIU to accusations of “anti-police bias,” as it requires making a determination before any evidence has been collected. But he also says it means that police chiefs, when considering whether to call in the SIU, will first need to decide if one of their own officers likely committed a crime. (Under the current rules, the SIU investigates any case of serious injury or death or allegations of sexual assault involving interaction with police.)

“This would completely subvert the SIU’s independence and its police oversight mission,” Mr. Loparco writes. “I strongly recommend that the word ‘criminal’ be struck from the section. To do otherwise would be to go backwards.”

Mr. Loparco, a former Scarborough Crown prosecutor appointed to his post in 2013, also singles out a new provision in the draft bill that allows the attorney-general to make regulations “governing the operating policies and procedures” of the SIU.

“Unless circumscribed, this authority strikes at the independence of the SIU and opens the door to potential political interference in the daily operations of a law enforcement agency,” his letter reads.

Mr. Ford’s reforms, announced last month and praised by police unions and chiefs, follow on his Progressive Conservative government’s suspension last summer of the previous Liberal government’s legislation to strengthen police oversight. His Community Safety Minister, Sylvia Jones, has called the previous government’s changes the “most anti-police piece of legislation in Canadian history." The Liberal law, among other measures, would have imposed much higher fines on officers who failed to co-operate with an SIU investigation.

Jesse Robichaud, a spokesman for Ontario Attorney-General Caroline Mulroney, said in an e-mail that the new legislation would still require the SIU to be notified of any incident of serious injury or death after the use of force by an official.

The SIU would have the authority to investigate “any incident which may have resulted from criminal conduct by an official, where a person dies or is seriously injured, or where there is a discharge of a firearm at a person, or a report of sexual assault,” he said.

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The proposed changes, he said, mirror amendments made recently to excuse officers who use naloxone to revive opioid-overdose victims from SIU scrutiny if their efforts fail. The new bill would eliminate the need to call in the SIU in cases in which an investigation is clearly unnecessary, such as when someone dies of a heart attack just as police arrive.

“The proposed legislation is designed to allow the SIU to focus its resources on appropriate, pressing cases that need to be investigated while supporting front-line police,” Mr. Robichaud said. “This would ensure SIU resources are focused where they should be: on potential criminal activity.”

Several other provisions in the new draft law have prompted concern from the SIU’s director, whose spokeswoman did not respond to requests for an interview.

In his letter, Mr. Loparco says a section of Bill 68 continues to allow police awaiting the arrival of SIU investigators at a scene to take measures to protect, obtain or preserve evidence – without checking with the SIU first. He also singles out a provision that only obligates witness officers to answer “reasonable” questions, which he says raises the question of just who determines whether questions are reasonable and imposes a restriction no other law-enforcement agency faces.

He also condemns Bill 68’s pledge obliging the SIU director to “endeavour to ensure” that investigations are completed within 120 days, saying it is “simply unrealistic and … setting the unit up for failure.”

The time period is too short to complete a complex probe, Mr. Loparco writes, noting that in cases involving a death, a postmortem almost always takes six months. He also warns that he expects “further significant cuts” to the SIU’s budget.

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