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Police struggle with protesters as they clear a homeless encampment.
A new law will erode public oversight into police misconduct. In this July 2021 photo, police are seen clearing a homeless encampment in Toronto. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

Changing how police complaints are handled in Ontario violates the public trust

Changes to how public complaints against police officers are handled will make the complaints system even more insular in Ontario.

Through the province’s Community Safety and Policing Act, 2019, the system for handling non-criminal police misconduct will quietly shift a greater portion of the system out of the public eye.

The act has been passed, but is not yet in force.

Review came with recommendations

In 2016, Justice Michael Tulloch, now the Chief Justice of Ontario, led a systemic review of police oversight in Ontario, which included comprehensive recommendations.

A Black man in a suit and glasses is seen at a news conference.
Justice Michael Tulloch discusses police street checks during a news conference in Toronto in January 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/ Tijana Martin

The review looked at the three police oversight bodies in Ontario, including the Office of the Independent Police Review Director (OIPRD).

It broke ground as the first and only independent systemic review of the police oversight system to tackle how complaints against police officers and police officer discipline are handled.

Tulloch’s report provided 129 recommendations aimed at enhancing the public’s trust in the system.

Although some recommendations were adopted through the 2019 act, most were not.

Independent investigations

The OIPRD has been in charge of handling public complaints against the police since it was established in 2007. It is Ontario’s independent police watchdog on matters of non-criminal police misconduct. The Special Investigations Unit, on the other hand, conducts investigations of incidents involving the police that have resulted in death, serious injury or allegations of sexual assault.

In this role, the OIPRD co-ordinates with police forces in Ontario to manage the complaints intake and screening process. It also publishes the results of police misconduct hearings on its website.

The OIPRD can conduct misconduct investigations by itself. However, the police forces themselves take on the majority of duties associated with those investigations.

The Tulloch report found that only about a third of complaints investigations were conducted by the police watchdog. It highlighted this issue “as a major impediment to a good faith and impartial investigation.”

A key recommendation was that complaints investigations should no longer be handled by police forces.

A new name in police complaints probes

Currently, individual police services conduct most investigations into complaints about police officers, and this will increase as a result of the 2019 act.

The OIPRD summarized the forthcoming changes on its website, explaining how it will be renamed the Law Enforcement Complaints Agency.

The agency’s Complaints Director will conduct investigations into public complaints about police chiefs and deputy chiefs, other high-ranking officers and “any other complaints determined to be in the public interest.”

But “all other complaints will be referred back to either the police service from which they originated or another police service.”

Such a change shrinks the role of independent oversight into police misconduct.

Transparency and public trust in the system

Tulloch’s report cautioned that the current system sets up public complainants for disappointment.

At the conclusion of an investigation, the investigator makes a crucial decision about whether the misconduct allegations associated with a complaint are substantiated. This decision cannot be appealed.

A CBC investigation found that out of all the complaints made against Toronto police officers from 2014 to 2019, only two per cent were substantiated. Only one per cent of substantiated complaints have gone before the Toronto police disciplinary tribunal.

Even for substantiated complaints that go before a disciplinary tribunal, disciplinary action against the police officer is not guaranteed.

As a result of the 2019 act, a more limited range of police disciplinary matters will be settled through a hearing, the only public venue for adjudicating police misconduct. These changes erode public trust in the system.

Many complainants find that the system lacks transparency, especially at the police discipline stage. Members of the public have limited avenues for learning about how police forces address individual issues of police misconduct, let alone service-wide trends.

Human rights monitoring in Ontario

One of the most troubling consequences of the current system is that it prevents public agencies from monitoring systemic racism and other human rights abuses associated with non-criminal police misconduct.

The Ontario Human Rights Commission’s Framework for Change to Address Systemic Racism in Policing illustrates how the current system offers no tools to monitor police officers’ violations of human rights or police forces’ responses.

According to the commission, confidentiality provisions in Ontario’s policing laws “prevent the public from knowing when and whether an officer was subject to some form of discipline for engaging in racial profiling, racial discrimination or other police misconduct.”

A crowd of people hold up Black Lives Matter signs in front of Toronto police headquarters.
People protest to defund the police in front of Toronto Police Service headquarters in July 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

Given that the police are the largest single sector for human rights complaints in Ontario, a lack of transparency around police misconduct and discipline is a human rights issue.

The changes from the new Ontario law will make it even harder to monitor police officer violations of human rights. These changes undermine the essential public purpose of the system.

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