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The civilian watchdog group investigating allegations of police abuse in Toronto and Ottawa is under investigation by the province's Ombudsman as critics question whether it has the teeth required to expose wrongdoing.

The Special Investigations Unit – Ontario's civilian police watchdog – finds itself at the forefront of public attention. It is the lead body looking into allegations that Toronto Police officers went too far during the June G20 protests. The SIU has also been called in to investigate the case of Stacey Bonds, an Ottawa make-up artist with no criminal record whose treatment in police custody – including a knee to her backside and being left topless in a cell for more than three hours – was strongly condemned this fall by an Ontario Court judge.

But just as the police watchdog jumps into the public consciousness, The Globe and Mail has learned that it is under investigation itself.

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The office of Ontario's Ombudsman, André Marin – a former head of the SIU in the 1990s – said an investigation is under way that will follow up on the office's 2008 investigation. That review produced a strongly worded, 121-page report that suggested the SIU looks to avoid conflict with the police it reviews and does little to dispel its image as a toothless tiger and muzzled watchdog.

Independent reviews by the SIU and other bodies into allegations of police abuse in Toronto and Ottawa are reviving concern over the public's options when it comes to complaining about the police.

The SIU's critics, which include Ottawa lawyer Lawrence Greenspon, who has handled lawsuits against Ottawa police officers, say the SIU simply keeps too much information private.

"All of these supposed checks on the powers of the police are not working," said Mr. Greenspon, who added that he receives about a complaint a week alleging police misconduct and often advises people not to waste their time with a formal grievance. Mr. Greenspon said it is not appropriate that the full work of the SIU is shared only with Ontario's Attorney-General while the public only receives a news release.

"It's quite astounding that you have this process which is held up as 'Oh, we're going to bring in an independent organization to investigate police wrongdoing.' Sure you are," he said. "The fact that the SIU's been called in to look into the Stacey Bonds case in Ottawa is cold comfort."

Created in 1990, the civilian SIU arrived amid hope it would end the public's cynicism about police investigating police. Tasked with probing cases involving sexual assault, serious injury or death, the investigations can lead to criminal charges against individual officers.

The Ombudsman's 2008 report – titled Oversight Unseen – called on the SIU to make more of its information public and to take measures to avoid conflicts of interest involving staff who are former police officers who may be involved in investigations of ex-colleagues.

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Frank Phillips, a spokesman for the SIU, said the unit always co-operates with the Ombudsman's office and it acted upon the Ombudsman's 2008 advice.

"If you look at our news releases now, they're a lot more fulsome," he said.

Michael Kempa, a University of Ottawa criminology professor specializing in police oversight, said the SIU compares favourably with options available in other countries and has been the most successful of Canada's police watchdogs. In 2009, 14 officers were charged as a result of SIU investigations.

"They are seen to have a lot of bite because they are completely independent," he said.

In his view, there are so many bodies with a role in police oversight in Canada – all tied to various municipal, provincial or national forces – that the public is left confused and, as a result, mistrustful. He said the federal government should set up a single point of contact to direct complaints to the appropriate place.

"When things are confusing, you'll find that people aren't satisfied with them," he said.

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The Harper government responded to long-standing criticism over weak RCMP oversight in June by announcing the creation of a new body with more teeth, the RCMP Review and Complaints Commission. The federal body will have a budget of $10-million a year, including $5-million in new annual funding.

RCMP Commissioner William Elliott has heralded the move as essential to preserving the public perception of his force.

"The public rightly expects that the actions of our employees will be subject to independent, professional and thorough investigations," Mr. Elliott said in a recent speech.

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