Police accountability:
Comparing B.C. with Ontario (I)

Their system is a flawed work in progress
but it surpasses ours in three crucial areas

April 25, 2010


If anything positive could come out of Ian Bush’s death at the Houston RCMP detachment, it would be his mother’s advocacy for police accountability. In an April 21 press conference Linda Bush called on B.C.’s legislature to follow the Ontario example for investigating police. While far from perfect, Ontario’s system surpasses B.C.’s in three crucial areas: civilian investigation, the use of investigators who aren’t former police officers, and accountability to the provincial ombudsman. Here’s a comparison of the two systems.

Who watches the police?

Ontario has two oversight organizations: the Special Investigations Unit (SIU) and the Office of the Independent Police Review Director (OIPRD). B.C. has one, the Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner (OPCC).

Which police forces do they watch?

Ontario’s two organizations oversee the province’s municipal and regional forces, and the Ontario Provincial Police. B.C.’s OPCC oversees municipal police forces, the Vancouver-region transit police and two police forces on native reserves.

Neither province oversees the federally regulated RCMP yet. But the Mounties have asked Ontario’s SIU to begin taking over investigations of serious RCMP incidents. In B.C., the Mounties seem likely to come under provincial oversight, possibly the OPCC, when their contract is renewed in 2012.

What do they watch for?

Ontario’s SIU investigates deaths, serious injuries and sexual assaults allegedly committed by police. Ontario’s OIPRD handles less serious offences.

B.C.’s OPCC handles all police complaints, but does so under the province’s Police Act, not the Criminal Code. In B.C., serious offences might face two separate police investigations, one under the Police Act and another under the Criminal Code.

What kind of oversight do they have?

Ontario’s SIU investigates police. The SIU has its own investigators stationed across the province and its own forensics team. Ontario’s OIPRD investigates some allegations itself. But it sends about five out of six complaints back to the police to investigate — either by the same force involved or a different force. The OIPRD then reviews the investigation. The OIPRD can also take over a police investigation.

B.C.’s OPCC conducts no investigations at all. Police investigate police, either under the Police Act, the Criminal Code, or both. The OPCC reviews Police Act investigations. Crown attorneys review any recommendations the police might pass on following a criminal investigation.

Who works for them?

According to figures reported in February 2010, Ontario’s SIU has over 40 civilian investigators, 12 of them full time. Over half the full-time investigators are ex-cops.

A highly critical September 2008 ombudsman’s report stated that seven out of 12 full-time and 24 out of 30 on-call investigators were former police officers, as were nine out of 10 forensic technicians, all the supervisors and the executive officer.

Four of the OIPRD’s 10 investigators are ex-cops.

B.C.’s OPCC has six civilian analysts and a deputy commissioner. All but one are former police officers. The OPCC is headed by Stan Lowe, a former Crown attorney who took part in the decision to clear the four Mounties involved in Robert Dziekanski’s death. The OPCC is about to hire five more analysts but it’s not clear whether they’ll come from civilian or police backgrounds.

What powers do they have?

Ontario’s SIU director can lay criminal charges against police officers. Ontario’s OIPRD director can request an informal resolution or call a public hearing.

B.C.’s OPCC can request an informal resolution, ask police to re-open an investigation, recommend a stiffer penalty or call a public hearing.

Are they themselves accountable?

Ontario’s SIU answers to the province’s ombudsman. The OIPRD doesn’t, although the provincial government has been strongly criticized over that.

B.C.’s OPCC answers to no one — not the ombudsperson, the government nor anyone else. New legislation allows a complainant to ask the OPCC for further explanation about its decision, but there’s no provision for an appeal, review or any kind of second opinion.

Appeals to Ontario Ombudsman Andre Marin, on the other hand, resulted in a lengthy investigation of the SIU and the landmark 2008 report Oversight Unseen. Among other recommendations, Marin called for more investigators from a purely civilian background to counteract an “internal culture overly influenced by a preponderance of ex-police officers among its staff.”

In a separate submission, Marin criticized the OIPRD’s immunity from the ombudsman’s oversight. “Who can the police or the public turn to if someone is dissatisfied with the delicate decisions [the OIPRD] will make regarding complaints against the police? The answer is no one.”

What does the future hold?

Ontario’s system is a flawed work in progress, but it’s by far Canada’s best. Continuing vigilance by activists, politicians, media and the ombudsman have brought about greater public awareness and reason for cautious optimism.

But that’s not the case in B.C. In a development that was completely missed by the media, both provincial political parties united in October 2009 to pass minor Police Act amendments that preserved B.C.’s tripartite status quo — police continue to investigate police, their investigations are reviewed by former police officers and those former police officers answer to nobody. These issues will become even more important if — as now seems likely — the RCMP come under provincial oversight in 2012.


Update: On June 18, 2010, in another development that was completely missed by the media, the BC Liberal government announced it would create the Independent Investigation Office that the Thomas Braidwood Inquiry recommended to investigate deaths and serious injuries at the hands of police. But the government stated it might put the new agency under the jurisdiction of the OPCC. That would circumvent Braidwood’s intention to keep the agency independent of police and answerable to the Ombudsperson. More...


Police accountability: Comparing B.C. with Ontario (II)
Without an ombudsperson’s strong oversight
B.C.’s police ‘watchdog’ will remain B.C.’s police lapdog
Police accountability: Comparing B.C. with Ontario (III)
A conflict between Ontario police and the SIU
contrasts with the very chummy relationship
between B.C. cops and the OPCC
Police accountability: Comparing B.C. with Ontario (IV)
Ontario’s NDP criticizes the AG for
‘buckling under a very powerful police lobby.’
Meanwhile B.C.’s NDP, Liberals and cops
stand united against police accountability
Police accountability: Comparing B.C. with Ontario (V)
Ontario’s SIU faces public criticism and a second investigation
by the provincial Ombudsman. B.C.’s OPCC continues to escape scrutiny
Police accountability: Comparing B.C. with Ontario (VI)
You won’t read this in B.C.’s mainstream media.
And that’s part of the reason we’ll never have effective police oversight
Read about B.C.’s inadequate Independent Investigations Office
Read about Stan Lowe and the OPCC
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