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Ontario strengthening police oversight, redefining core police duties

Click to play video: 'Province introduces proposed reforms to Police Services Act and oversight agencies'
Province introduces proposed reforms to Police Services Act and oversight agencies
Thu, Nov 2: The province is revamping policing and the police oversight system in Ontario. Mark Carcasole reports – Nov 2, 2017

TORONTO – Sweeping changes to Ontario’s policing laws were introduced Thursday, including strengthening oversight, making it possible to suspend officers without pay and redefining police duties.

The new rules, contained in a massive piece of legislation years in the making, would include the first update to the province’s Police Services Act in more than 25 years.

“The issues faced by police services and their members today are far more complex than when the act was developed,” said Community Safety and Correctional Services Minister Marie-France Lalonde. “The last time the act was revised, there was no internet, the Blue Jays won the World Series and you needed a briefcase to carry your cellphone.”

READ MORE: Report on enhancing civilian oversight of Ontario police released

Many of the policing updates stem from Appeal Court Justice Michael Tulloch’s report on police oversight, released earlier this year, and include requiring the Special Investigations Unit or SIU, one of the province’s police oversight agencies, to report publicly on all of its investigations and release the names of officers charged.

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Attorney General Yasir Naqvi said he has “deep respect and appreciation” for the more than 26,000 police officers in Ontario who risk their lives to keep people safe, but it’s also important to establish checks and balances.

“We have all heard the growing concerns that some communities, in particular black and Indigenous communities, feel unjustly harmed at the hands of police,” he said. “We have witnessed such tensions across North America and we have learned that Ontario is not immune.”

An Inspector General would be established to oversee police services, with the power to investigate and audit them, and Ontario’s ombudsman would be able to investigate complaints against the police oversight bodies.

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The three police oversight agencies that already exist in Ontario – the SIU, the Office of the Independent Police Review Director (OIPRD) and the Ontario Civilian Police Commission (OCPC) – would get expanded mandates.

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The OIPRD will be renamed the Ontario Policing Complaints Agency and would investigate all public complaints against police officers. The OCPC would be renamed the Ontario Policing Discipline Tribunal, dedicated solely to adjudicating police disciplinary matters, so that isn’t done by the police services themselves.

As well, the SIU would be able to investigate not just current, but also former police officers, volunteer members of police services, special constables, off-duty officers and members of First Nations police services.

Police officers who don’t comply with such investigations could be fined up to $50,000 and/or be sent to jail for up to one year.

The SIU said it “wholeheartedly welcomes” the new Policing Oversight Act, tabled as part of the larger bill.

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Selwyn Pieters, a lawyer who frequently takes on issues of anti-black racism, said the expanded mandates and more layers of oversight will serve the public well.

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“I think those are fundamental when you talk about fairness, when you talk about impartiality, when you talk about balancing the scales between civilians and police officers,” he said. “We know the SIU has been criticized in terms of how it interacts and how it deals with shootings, particularly involving black men.”

Suspending police officers without pay was one of the most discussed issues during the five-year process to update policing legislation, Lalonde said.

Ontario is currently the only province in which chiefs can’t revoke the pay of suspended officers, who collect millions of dollars each year. Right now, suspended officers have to be paid even when convicted of an offence, unless they are sentenced to prison.

READ MORE: Civilian oversight review of police in Ontario set for first public forum

The new legislation proposes to allow suspensions without pay when an officer is in custody or when they are charged with a serious federal offence that wasn’t allegedly committed in the course of their duties.

But if an officer wants to fight that, the matter would go to the disciplinary tribunal, which would make the final decision. If the officer is ultimately found not guilty of the charge they faced, they would be reimbursed for the lost pay, Lalonde said.

Fred Kaustinen, the executive director of the Ontario Association of Police Services Boards, said the rules strike a reasonable balance, though he would have liked a bit more flexibility for chiefs when it comes to suspension without pay.

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READ MORE: Ontario ombudsman to review police shooting of 18-year-old Toronto man

“When you have egregious offences conducted by some of the 26,000 members, sworn police officers in the province, it erodes that public trust and also is hugely expensive if somebody’s still on full pay and benefits because police officer salaries are very high in this province,” he said.

Local police boards would also be created for the Ontario Provincial Police, similar to the structure of municipal police services boards – which will be required to undergo more training, such as on diversity. The new act would also allow First Nations police forces to establish their own police services boards.

An amended Coroners Act would require coroner’s inquests when police kill through use of force, another one of Tulloch’s key recommendations.

The government’s stated approach is to share the burden of community safety with municipalities. They will be required to implement community safety plans, such as identifying a need for more addiction and mental health programs, aiming to prevent problems before police get involved.

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The new act will also for the first time clearly define police responsibilities as those that can only be performed by an officer. That will be worked out in regulations, but Lalonde said for example, sworn constables may not be the best people to monitor construction sites.

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The Police Association of Ontario warned Thursday that those changes would open the door to privatization and could risk public safety, but Lalonde disputed the suggestion.

“When you call 911 and you need a police officer, a police officer will respond,” she said.

Two new pieces of legislation would also allow police to track a cellphone and search a home in missing persons cases – something they can only do now when a crime is suspected – as well as making accreditation and oversight of forensic labs mandatory.

 Here are the highlights of the broad new legislation:

– Police chiefs will have the ability to suspend officers without pay if they are in custody or charged with a serious federal offence not allegedly committed in the course of their duties.

– A new oversight body called the Inspector General will be created, with the ability to investigate and audit police services.

– Ontario’s ombudsman will have the power to investigate the province’s three police oversight agencies currently known as the Special Investigations Unit, the Office of the Independent Police Review Director and the Ontario Civilian Police Commission.

– The Special Investigations Unit will be renamed the Ontario Special Investigations Unit (OSIU) and will be able to investigate not just current, but also former police officers, volunteer members of police services, special constables as well as off-duty officers and members of First Nations police services, in some circumstances. Its reports would have to be publicly released.

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– The OSIU’s investigative mandate will be expanded beyond the current scope of civilian death, serious injury or sexual assault.

– The Office of the Independent Police Review Director will be renamed the Ontario Policing Complaints Agency (OPCA) and will become the sole investigative body for public complaints against police officers.

– Police officers who don’t comply with OSIU or OPCA’s investigations could be fined up to $50,000 and/or be sent to jail for up to one year.

– The Ontario Civilian Police Commission will be renamed the Ontario Policing Discipline Tribunal and will adjudicate disciplinary matters, ensuring public complaints aren’t handled by the police services themselves.

– Duties that can only be performed by a sworn police officer will be defined in the act’s regulations.

– A new Missing Persons Act will give police new tools when searching for people when there is no evidence of a crime, including tracking cellphone records and searching homes.

– The Coroners Act will be updated to require mandatory inquests when people die due to a police officer’s use of force.

– First Nations police services will be able to establish their own police services boards.

– Local police services boards will be created for the Ontario Provincial Police.

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– Members of police services boards will be required to complete more training, including on diversity.

– A new Forensic Laboratories Act will create a provincial accreditation framework for such labs.

– Municipalities will be mandated to develop community safety and well-being plans, giving them a greater role in preventing the need for police intervention.

– A Public Safety Institute will be created to conduct research and help inform the delivery of police services.

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