Ontario's civilian police watchdog did not tell the public about most of its investigations into the conduct of Hamilton police officers last year, including four allegations of sexual assault.

New data also shows that Hamilton police did not notify the Special Investigations Unit (SIU) about a vehicular death involving police that happened in the city last September. Instead, an investigation was only launched after the victim's family contacted the SIU, which raises questions about accountability and transparency between the two organizations.

According to information obtained by CBC News under the Freedom of Information Act, since Jan. 1, 2016, the SIU opened 18 investigations involving the Hamilton Police Service — but it only publicized six of them.

Four cases involving sexual assault allegations involving a police officer were opened in February, April and September of 2016, but they were never announced. The April case only surfaced in May after media calls to the SIU about the investigation.

Hamilton police provided a list of the SIU's local investigations from last year in a report to the police services board earlier this month, which included the four sexual assault incidents. It did not, however, list the vehicular death investigation that police did not bring to the SIU.

An SIU spokesperson said it's actually the organization's policy to not notify the public in cases of sexual assault claims.

"To protect the identities and privacy of the complainant and the subject officer, the SIU does not release information in cases involving allegations of sexual assault, unless there is an appeal for witnesses or information, or the director causes a charge to be laid," Monica Hudon said in an email.

'It's important for us as a community to have access to information about these investigations.'
- Lenore Lukasik-Foss, Director, Sexual Assault Centre of Hamilton

But that rationale doesn't make any sense, says Lenore Lukasik-Foss, the director of the Sexual Assault Centre of Hamilton.

"I'm really not sure why there would be a lack of transparency on this specific issue," she said.

That's because, Lukasik-Foss says, the identities of both the victim and any officer involved could easily be protected.

Both names and identifying details could be kept out of any announcement of an investigation, with an officer's name only being announced if charges were laid, she says.

Should a case move forward in court, the victim could then be protected by a publication ban.

According to annual reports dating back to 2006, sexual assault allegations are the second most frequent cause for the SIU to launch an investigation.

In 2015, for example, the SIU opened 40 sexual assault allegation cases against police officers across Ontario.

"Given that frequency, it's important for us as a community to have access to information about these investigations," Lukasik-Foss said.

Information about vehicle death involving police also never released

Hudon, however, still maintained that releasing any information would be too risky.

"Releasing any information about the incident — time, date, location, incident details — could potentially result in identification of the individual who is alleging a sexual assault occurred."

Hamilton police fatal shooting

One of the SIU's investigations from last year is the shooting death of Tony Divers, which happened in October. (Andrew Collins/CBC)

Hudon said in an email that the vehicle death listed in the CBC's FOI was not publicized because Hamilton police did not tell the organization about it. The collision that killed a 19-year-old man on Sept. 3 in downtown Hamilton only came to the SIU's attention when the victim's family contacted the organization almost a month later.

All Ontario police services are under a legal obligation to immediately notify the SIU of incidents of serious injury, allegations of sexual assault, or death involving their officers. 

Hamilton police did not immediately respond to questions about why the SIU was not notified about this incident.

The death is also not listed on a police board report of SIU investigations presented at the Hamilton police board earlier this month. The SIU has confirmed that there is an active investigation probing the crash.

According to the police board report, the SIU launched 13 formal investigations last year, with two concluded with no reasonable grounds for further examination.

There are 11 open investigations involving Hamilton police from last year, but it's not clear which cases are still active.

'Limited resources' a contributing factor, SIU says

Since the start of 2016, the SIU opened seven investigations involving injuries to people in police custody, all without issuing a media release or posting about it on the organization's website.

The SIU isn't consistent about what it publicizes on that front, as it did publicize two custody injuries last year, as well as three vehicle injuries.

Hudon said due to limited resources, the SIU is only committed to alerting the media in all cases involving death, whenever a firearm is used and for major vehicle collisions.

Desmond Cole Ontario police review Ottawa Morning April 7 2017

Desmond Cole, an activist and journalist, says the government-commissioned review of Ontario's three police oversight bodies doesn't go far enough. (Waubgeshig Rice/CBC)

"SIU receives notification of hundreds of incidents every year. At this point in time, given the SIU's limited resources, our ability to issue news releases in all cases is not feasible," she wrote.

The problem with that, argues journalist and activist Desmond Cole, is that it's dangerous to have the SIU, the main check and balance on police criminal behaviour, keeping information from the public.

"It assumes the public just has to live with the results of SIU reports, that if 97 per cent of officers never get charged, which is the case, then we have to trust that that's just how it goes," he said in an interview with CBC Ottawa.

"You're shielding the public from knowing that police officers get investigated for sexual assault."

Public servants get public scrutiny

Cole, a vocal critic of police actions, also doesn't buy the idea that policing is a private profession.

"The idea that the police take our money, use our public resources and have a huge, huge public mandate but that as soon as they're seen as doing something wrong it's all private that to me is dangerous and extremely irresponsible," he said.

"If they don't want public scrutiny, then don't become public servants."

police tape

The SIU investigates reports involving police where there has been death, serious injury or allegations of sexual assault. (CBC)

The investigations that the SIU made public over the last year include the death of Tony Divers, who was shot in the street by a Hamilton police officer last October.

The organization also told the public when a 74-year-old woman was hit by a police cruiser last September, and when a woman who was allegedly brandishing a large knife was Tasered in July.

The information in CBC's freedom of information request come on the heels of a major report into police oversight in the province, including the SIU, from Justice Michael Tulloch.

As recommended by the report, Attorney General Yasir Naqvi committed to publishing the details of every police-involved fatality dating back to 1990, when the Special Investigations Unit was established.

The report also recommended that oversight agencies begin collecting demographic data including race and religion, and release detailed reports any time an officer is cleared of wrongdoing. However, police officers involved in deaths or serious incidents will not be identified unless they are charged.

adam.carter@cbc.ca

With files from Catharine Tunney