Ontario's civilian police watchdog didn't alert the public in the majority of cases it opened involving the Ottawa Police Service over the last year, including four allegations of sexual assault, CBC News has learned.
According to information obtained by CBC News under the Freedom of Information Act, since Jan. 1, 2016, the Special Investigations Unit opened 14 investigations involving the Ottawa Police Service but only sent out media releases in five cases.
- Police watchdog review doesn't go far enough, critic says
- Ottawa residents pack meeting for rare opportunity to question SIU
Four cases involving sexual assault allegations were opened in February, April and August of 2016 and January of this year. The 2017 case only eventually surfaced in March after the Ottawa Citizen first reported the details, citing sources.
An SIU spokesperson said it's actually their 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.
That reasoning doesn't make sense to Sunny Marriner, the executive director of the Ottawa Rape Crisis Centre.
"I really question the policy and what the reasoning behind the policy is because we certainly are aware when police and SIU are investigating other kinds of serious occurrences with policing so I would wonder why this one in particular has a different approach," she said.
Marriner said in other cases the SIU alerts the public of a new case without naming the police officer under investigation, and a sexual assault claimant's name would be protected by a publication ban.
"The SIU alerts the public because the SIU's function is in part transparency for police accountability. So if the SIU's reasoning behind letting us know is so that the public can be aware of how the oversight function is working with policing, I don't see why that would be any different than with sexual assault," she said.
"If we're not even aware that sexual assault allegations are being investigated by the SIU how do we then ask the subsequent questions of what protections are in place for the vulnerable populations that they have access to?"
News releases not always 'feasible'
Since the start of 2016 the Special Investigations Unit also opened four investigations involving injuries to people in police custody and one case of a vehicle injury, all without issuing a media release.
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.
"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.
"You're shielding the public from knowing that police officers get investigated for sexual assault."
Public servants, 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."
The investigations that the SIU made public over the last year include the start of the high-profile investigation into the July 2016 death of Abdirahman Abdi and another case where a man who fell to his death from a balcony on McWatters Street in September 2016. They also notified the public when they started investigating a case where a 24-year-old Ottawa man died following a police chase.
The SIU says it still has nine open investigations involving the Ottawa Police Service, but it's not clear which cases are still active.
The release of CBC's Freedom of Information request coincided with the SIU releasing its annual report for the calendar year of 2015.
Between Jan. 1, 2015, and Dec. 31, 2015, the SIU investigated 13 cases involving Ottawa police, including two allegations of sexual assault and one custody death.
The 2016 numbers will officially be released in 2018.
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.
Oversight recommendations made
Both the 2015 numbers and 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.
Cole isn't convinced the report will change the culture of transparency between police and the SIU.
"I don't have a lot of confidence in the kinds of major overhaul that we need in terms of the SIU. We don't need to reform the SIU, the SIU needs to be overhauled. I dare say we would probably be better served if we completely scrapped the SIU and started all over again. It's that dysfunctional."