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Globe editorial: Ontario reforms police oversight, but still has a ways to go

Ontario Attorney-General Yasir Naqvi jumped out ahead of an important new report on police oversight last week when he announced his government will start publicly releasing the findings of investigations into cases where police officers kill a civilian.

Not only that, but the government will also release all the findings from the past decade by the end of this year – 120 cases, in all.

This is a major step forward. Until now, the Special Investigations Unit – the agency created in 1990 to investigate police actions that have resulted in the death or serious injury of a civilian, as well as allegations of sexual assault by officers – has operated in secrecy.

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No one other than the attorney-general ever knows what evidence was presented in cases in which a civilian was shot by an officer, or died in police custody, and the SIU decided not to criminally charge the officers involved – an outcome that occurs the vast majority of times.

That huge gap in transparency made it impossible for the public to have confidence that the SIU's decisions were impartial and fair.

Mr. Naqvi's sudden burst of sunlight is the direct result of specific recommendations in a review of Ontario's police-oversight system by Justice Michael Tulloch. He announced the changes simultaneously with the release of Justice Tulloch's review last week, and in doing so he stole some of the thunder from a critical document.

The Minister's quick response on two of Justice Tulloch's recommendations should not prompt anyone to overlook the fact there are other vital recommendations in the report – ones that will not be so politically easy for Mr. Naqvi to implement.

In particular, Justice Tulloch says the government should make it a crime for an officer to refuse to co-operate with the SIU, and should give the SIU the power to make officers turn over their notes about an incident written before an official investigation is launched. This will be difficult to get past the unions that represent rank-and-file officers.

He also wants the government to require that there always be a coroner's inquest when a police officer's use of force is the direct cause of the death of a civilian.

Less controversially, Justice Tulloch wants the SIU to be better funded and to actively recruit investigators who are not former police officers.

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His goal is to improve the transparency, accountability and effectiveness of police-oversight bodies in Ontario. Mr. Naqvi should not let the more difficult parts of the Tulloch report gather dust on a shelf in his office. He has gotten off to a good start, but there is still a very long way to go.

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