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Toronto police brutality trial 'acid test' for Special Investigations Unit

Demonstrators with flowers face riot police during protests ahead of the G20 summt in Toronto June 26, 2010.

Mark Blinch/Reuters/Mark Blinch/Reuters

In the past two months, Ontario's police watchdog has faced off with Toronto's top cop over brutality allegations at the G20 summit, charged an officer in a shooting death for the first time in 13 years and garnered unprecedented attention.

On Monday, as court proceedings begin against the officer accused of roughing up a man at the G20 - a case certain to be one of the most closely watched in the Special Investigation Unit's history - the agency will be called on to prove to the public that it is a robust watchdog and to police that it is a dispassionate, impartial investigator.

The SIU's profile during the G20 was just the latest example of an organization that observers say has found renewed vigour since Ian Scott, a former Crown attorney, took over as director in the fall of 2008. The civilian oversight body had just been the subject of a scathing report by Ombudsman André Marin, himself a former director, who slammed the SIU for backing down in the face of police resistance to investigations and not doing enough to bring public awareness to its cases.

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Since then, Mr. Scott has gone public on policing issues, disputing the right of officers in SIU investigations to write their notes a day after an incident and challenging the notion of a taser as a non-lethal weapon. He also began releasing more details on individual investigations.

"If a charge is not laid, it facilitates public confidence in the SIU if I explain my reasons," he says.

He further made internal changes, reworking the SIU's dispatch system to get investigators to incident scenes more quickly.

The agency has seen a jump in the number of cases investigated and a doubling of charges against police. In 2009 and 2010, the agency charged officers in 12 and 10 incidents, respectively; in 2009, it handled a record 312 cases. While Mr. Scott is hesitant to speculate on the reason for the increase, he suggests the agency's higher profile might be prompting more people to come forward.

For his part, Mr. Marin is happy with the changes.

"He's not being pushed around - when there's a problem with the police, he writes them, he informs the Attorney-General," he said. "It strikes me that the SIU is doing what it should be doing."

The SIU's transformation, however, has raised concerns among police.

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In a news release last November, Mr. Scott ruled that police had "probably" used excessive force in two cases, but that he could not identify the officers involved. Toronto police chief Bill Blair lambasted him for accusing police of brutality without charging anyone and said a video on which Mr. Scott had relied to make his determination in one of the cases, that of Adam Nobody, had been doctored.

The spat prompted bank employee John Bridge, who shot the video, to come forward as a witness. The SIU re-opened the investigation and ultimately charged Constable Babak Andalib-Goortani.

While the chief would later apologize to Mr. Nobody, other officers agreed with his criticism of Mr. Scott.

"His job is to go where the evidence takes him and not to go on political tangents," said Mike McCormack, president of the Toronto Police Association, who suggests the director has spoken up simply to blunt criticism of the organization.

Mr. McCormack questions why the SIU under Mr. Scott has investigated certain cases - such as an incident in November where a man fell to his death from a balcony while fleeing police who were in the building - and wonders at the higher number of charges under the director's tenure.

"Our concern is: is that because of political issues? Or is there evidence to lead him there? That will come out in the courts," he said.

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During the same week the renewed Nobody investigation began, the SIU charged Constable David Cavanagh with manslaughter in the death of Eric Osawe. The case is the first shooting since 1997, when Mr. Marin was SIU director, in which an officer has been charged.

But neither the Nobody investigation nor the Osawe case have done much to quiet criticism of the SIU by police accountability activists and some lawyers, which makes the coming court proceedings all the more important for the agency. Regardless of the outcome, its investigative process will be opened up to scrutiny.

"It is most likely the acid-test case of the organization," said Michael Kempa, a University of Ottawa criminologist. "If a proper procedure is not seen to have been followed, this would be the death knell in terms of public accountability."

Compared to other police oversight bodies, Mr. Kempa says the SIU has been effective, though he suggests it could do better by releasing an annual report on cases aimed at the public.

Mr. Marin, meanwhile, has launched a second probe of the agency. While he says the organization itself has resolved the problems he raised the first time around, he argues that its political masters at Queen's Park have not done their part. For instance, he says politicians have not acted quickly enough to compel police to notify the SIU as soon as possible of an incident.

(A spokeswoman for the Ministry of the Attorney-General, which oversees the SIU, pointed to several changes it has made since Mr. Marin's original report, including providing the money to hire more investigators and developing a system for tracking cases.)

Mr. Scott says he learned from the experience of the G20, both on the power of public exposure to generate investigative leads and on the use of social media. For instance, he acknowledges the unit never tried to contact Mr. Bridge through his YouTube account during the initial investigation.

But overall, he defends his agency's effectiveness.

"There are those who are always going to think we can never do anything right if a charge is not laid; there are some who believe there shouldn't even be an investigation because the police do nothing wrong," he said. "We play somewhere in the middle of those positions."

SIU history

Created in 1990, the country's only arms-length civilian police oversight body investigates instances of death, serious injury and sexual assault involving police. The death of Eric Osawe, shot dead last September, is the third incident in which the SIU has charged Toronto officers with killing someone in the line of duty.

Hugh George Dawson: Constable Rick Shank was charged with manslaughter for shooting Mr. Dawson, a 31-year-old suspected drug dealer, dead in his car on Easter Sunday, 1997 in Scarborough. At Constable Shank's trial, police testified they surrounded the car and tried to shift the gear into park so they could arrest Mr. Dawson. They said he grappled with both Constable Shank and another officer and reached for their guns, when the policeman shot him. Constable Shank's first trial ended in a mistrial; he was acquitted at his second.

Otto Vass: In the early morning hours of Aug. 9, 2000, four Toronto police officers were called to remove Mr. Vass from a 7-Eleven at College Street and Lansdowne Avenue, after he got into a fight. He punched an officer and, as police struggled to subdue him, he collapsed and died. Doctors later determined that a fat embolism released into his lungs had caused his death. The four officers were found not guilty at trial more than three years later.

Adrian Morrow

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