Police oversight isn’t broken, it was built this way
TheStar.com – Opinion/Commentary – New recommendations for reform are only useful if we acknowledge how overwhelmingly the current system favours police.
April 12, 2017. By DESMOND COLE
Police oversight in Ontario isn’t broken — it is designed to protect police from accountability, and in that sense it’s working just fine.
After years of public discontent, the provincial government recently launched a comprehensive review of three police oversight bodies. The Special Investigations Unit, which looks into any death, serious injury, or allegation of sexual assault involving police, is the agency most tied to public trust, and therefore the one most in need of an overhaul.
Thanks to Justice Michael Tulloch, who led the review and published his report last week, we have new clarity on the strategic dysfunction that is the SIU. Tulloch has made 129 recommendations for better police oversight, including dozens for the SIU. Many of Tulloch’s recommendations are painfully obvious — some suggested improvements are so basic to accountability that the reader is left wondering what kind of sick joke the SIU has been playing on us during its nearly three decades of operation.
The SIU has always described itself as an “independent civilian agency” that oversees police, but that’s just wordplay. The majority of SIU investigators are former police officers. Now consider Tulloch’s recommendation that going forward, at least 50 per cent of non-forensic SIU investigators should have a background in something other than policing. Why maintain even half of the spots for former cops? The tradition of having former police investigate current ones helps to explain why more than 97 per cent of all SIU investigations end without an officer being criminally charged.
“The mandate of the SIU should include all incidents involving the discharge of a firearm by police officer at a person,” reads another recommendation. Duh. The absence of this rule only helps the aggressive, reckless cops we all claim to dislike. I hope this recommendation is implemented, but it is just that — a recommendation. The provincial Liberal government ordered this review to suggest potential changes, not to compel itself to act.
Tulloch also recommends that the SIU should “incorporate anti-bias measures into their recruitment, training, education, and evaluation of investigators.” An agency whose interactions disproportionately involve disenfranchised people with a claim against police should not need this recommendation, but here we are.
Attorney General Yasir Naqvi praised Tulloch’s work last week, then immediately dodged multiple questions about whether he plans to implement all 129 recommendations. Naqvi did promise to move on two major ideas right away. One is the collection of demographic data on SIU complainants, including their race, religion, gender, and indigenous status. This is the most unambiguous victory of Tulloch’s report for vulnerable people in Ontario so far.
Unfortunately, Naqvi’s other immediate commitment shows how the SIU may still protect police instead of the public. Naqvi says his government will release all past and future SIU reports, but the government will first redact the identities of every cop who has ever been investigated. Even Tulloch said identifying police “would not improve transparency in a meaningful way.” Lord have mercy.
If the SIU has investigated a current police officer 10 times, the province will erase his name 10 times so the public is oblivious. No public servant deserves this much power, and police have certainly not earned it. Imagine a teacher or child care worker arguing that an allegation they harmed a child should be private. But for police, who have far more power, we continue this destructive tradition.
Also, important recommendations are absent from Tulloch’s report. While he rightly recommends expanding the definition of “serious injury” required to open an SIU investigation, the police’s use of stun guns is notably absent. It’s still cool to run 50,000 volts of electricity through a person’s body if you are the police — here again, the lack of an automatic investigation protects police instead of the public.
Pascale Diverlus and Rodney Diverlus of Black Lives Matter Toronto, whose heroic protest last year pushed the government to review police oversight, have written that “families of slain black people will not get justice from a report that sits on a shelf collecting dust.” Implementation is key, but it will only occur when we discredit the unchecked reverence for police authority that has made all this work necessary.
Above all, we must not leave implementation up to Naqvi, who promised reform on police carding in 2015, but failed because he refused to acknowledge the depth of entrenched racism and police power behind that practice. To cite a famous protest chant: the system isn’t broken, it was built this way. Only those willing to acknowledge this can change it.