Ontario’s Progressive Conservative government has rolled back the former Liberal government’s “anti-police” oversight bill and introduced new legislation that narrows the scope of the province’s police watchdogs and changes the way public complaints are to be investigated.
Community Safety Minister Sylvia Jones introduced the bill, called the Comprehensive Ontario Police Services Act, on Tuesday, as MPPs returned to the Ontario legislature from their winter break.
The bill, which can be shortened to the COPS Act, looks to speed up investigations by the Special Investigations Unit (SIU), with the goal of completing investigations within 120 days, as well as providing greater clarity as to when an investigation should take place. The SIU is the external watchdog automatically called to investigate incidents involving police and civilians that have resulted in serious injury, death or allegations of sexual assault.
Since taking office last June, Premier Doug Ford’s government has blocked changes that were to take place under the Liberal government’s bill, which had sweeping implications for policing, both in oversight and management of police forces.
Ms. Jones said the previous Liberal government’s Safer Ontario Act, known as Bill 175, “was quite frankly the most anti-police legislation in Canadian history. It was a disaster.”
“Under Bill 175, our police were presumed guilty until proven innocent,” she said.
The new 379-page Progressive Conservative bill also proposes a new agency to handle complaints against police, called the Law Enforcement Complaints Agency, which will have the discretion to direct complaints to either the affected police forces or to independent investigators. Public complaints about policing in Ontario are currently reviewed by an entity known as the Office of the Independent Police Review Director, or OIPRD, a body that last year released a highly critical report about inadequate police probes of the sudden deaths of nine Indigenous people in Thunder Bay.
Michael Bryant, executive director of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, accused the Ford government of “complete capitulation” to police unions in its new legislation.
“The government has gutted police oversight, scrapped the police complaints commission, and really set the clock back on accountability and transparency of policing right now, at a time when the pendulum had been swinging in the other direction,” Mr. Bryant, who was Ontario attorney-general in an earlier Liberal government, told reporters at Queen’s Park.
"If there’s less oversight of police, then people will have less confidence in a system. People need to know that the police don’t operate with impunity and that they’re not immune from the law.”
Attorney-General Caroline Mulroney said the SIU will still be called in when police use of force results in serious injury or death, when a firearm is discharged and when there are allegations of sexual assault. But in other circumstances, such as when a police officer arrives on scene and tries to perform CPR on someone having a heart attack or after a suicide, the SIU will not automatically be notified unless a police chief or other authorities believe the officer’s conduct may have been a contributing factor. The bill also allows the SIU director to conduct preliminary investigations into incidents before the SIU launches a full-scale investigation.
“A concern we have heard over and over from both families and police is that the SIU wastes time and energy investigating the wrong things, that these investigations take too long and that these investigations drain resources that could be focused on stopping criminal activity,” Ms. Mulroney said.
“The SIU process is also ridiculously opaque. Both police and the public are left in the dark, and the unavoidable outcome is that trust is constantly eroded.”
The new bill also requires the SIU to report every 30 days after the 120-day mark why an investigation is not yet completed.
“I’m extremely happy there will be changes made to the SIU,” Halton regional police Chief Steve Tanner said in an interview.
In charge of policing several fast-growing municipalities west of Toronto, he said that efforts to cap probes of police-involved violent incidents to 120 days or less will rightly rein in a watchdog agency that almost always went into overtime in its investigations.
Such delays in probing police misconduct were grueling, both for officers and families of people injured by police, he said. The new law “will make a difference not only for the front-line officers but also anyone else impacted in an SIU situation,” Chief Tanner said.
Some stakeholders were looking for fixes to policing that did not materialize in Ontario’s legislation.
Since 2007, police chiefs in Ontario have been lobbying for more powers to suspend officers – and to keep them off the police payroll in serious cases of suspected wrongdoing.
Yet the PC government’s bill has nearly identical suspend-without-pay clauses as the Liberal bill that passed last year. And this may serve to limit the ability of the chiefs to withhold paycheques as part of any punishments meted out.
“Expand the ability of chiefs to suspend without pay,” reads a position paper that was submitted to the Ontario government last fall by the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police.
It had pressed for broader powers, saying that legislated limits weren’t good enough. “The inability to suspend without pay in cases involving allegations of serious criminality or misconduct continue to have a negative impact on the public’s confidence and trust in the policing profession.”