Sweeping proposals to strengthen police oversight welcomed in Ottawa

The current and former chiefs of Ottawa police, the head of the Ottawa police union, the head of the Ottawa Police Services Board and other groups say they're pleased with proposed sweeping changes to police oversight in Ontario.

'I think overall it's enough goodies for all of us,' Ottawa Police Services Board chair says

Ontario's Minister for Government Services Marie-France Lalonde (left) looks on as the Attorney General Yasir Naqvi speaks to journalists during a news conference in Toronto on Thursday Nov. 2, 2017. Ontario is making sweeping changes to its policing laws, including strengthening oversight of the system and making it possible to suspend officers without pay. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

The current and former chiefs of Ottawa police, the head of the Ottawa police union, the head of the Ottawa Police Services Board and other groups say they're pleased with proposed sweeping changes to police oversight in Ontario.

The proposed changes in the Safer Ontario Act 2017 include the creation of an inspector general to monitor police forces, the ability for police chiefs to suspend officers without pay — though only in relatively rare investigations into off-duty conduct — better training for police services boards, mandatory coroner's inquests into deaths resulting from police use of force, and more.

Ottawa Police Services Board chair Eli El-Chantiry said stakeholders will be reading the proposed act closely in the coming days. (CBC News)

"We're pleased with what we saw. We've very pleased with the overall accountability mechanisms in place, the transparency in place, the suspension without pay, the mandatory training for board members ... creating boards for the OPP-area equivalent to the municipal police boards. So I think overall it's enough goodies for all of us," said Ottawa Police Services Board chair Eli El-Chantiry.

But "the devil's in the details," he said, referring to the 417-page act tabled Thursday afternoon. Stakeholders will be reading the act in the coming days to analyze the fine print, he said.

At a news conference Thursday morning, Attorney General Yasir Naqvi said he's hoping the legislation will be passed before the holiday recess because a lot of implementation work needs to be done.

'Some communities ... feel unjustly harmed'

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 he said 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."

Ottawa police Chief Charles Bordeleau said he thinks the proposed legislation is a positive step to address those tensions.

"I think it's a positive move forward, it's something that we've heard from our own community that they want to see more effective oversight, they want to see more transparency, but they also want to see something that's fair. The incidents that we've been involved with, they want to see a fair process and we're hopeful that with this new legislation ... that will bring the fairness, the transparency and accountability in a timely fashion," he said.

'Most of the time, they've done nothing wrong'

But Bordeleau also said officers are facing "a huge amount of pressure and oversight."

"We believe in oversight and the officers believe in oversight as well. What has been the challenge is that it's coming at them from so many angles, whether it's through social media and the instant criticism and rush to judgment around an event that they're involved with ... and that there are many bodies that have oversight of them and some of them are ineffective and they take a lot of time," Bordeleau said.

Ottawa police Chief Charles Bordeleau said he's pleased with the proposed changes overall. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

"A year and a half for the SIU to conduct a very straightforward investigation is not acceptable, and it puts our members through some very difficult times and it's challenging on them from a mental health perspective, from a physical perspective, and their ability to do the job with this hanging over the heads when they, at the end of the day, most of the time, they've done nothing wrong."

Ottawa Police Association president Matt Skof took exception to the idea that trust in police is a problem.

"I believe that there is a very small segment of society that has an agenda that they've pushed forward and have been very vocal. I believe a great percentage of people support the police, and that this has never been a public trust issue. This entire exercise has had an element of politics to it, and a lot of people with agendas," he said.

Privatizing some policing 'a social experiment'

Overall Skof said he's pleased with the proposed changes, and in particular with the proposed creation of an inspector general to independently advise, monitor and inspect police services, boards, chiefs of police, special constable employers and prescribed policing partners, as well as deal with complaints against them and submit reports annually.

"This has been sorely lacking. We've had what I would call ad hoc oversight ... this now allows for a co-ordinated approach as well as an improvement to oversight because that inspector general is who we now have standing with to bring forward an issue with the police executive," Skof said.

He's also pleased with the proposed independent adjudication of internal hearings into allegations of police misconduct. If passed, the police chief would no longer be able to hand pick the hearing officers, he said.

Matt Skof, president of the Ottawa Police Association, said he doesn't think privatizing some aspects of policing will save money or be overseen effectively. (CBC)

But Skof isn't pleased with everything. He said he isn't convinced privatizing some jobs traditionally done by police will save money or be overseen effectively.

"In regards to privatization of policing absolutely this is going to be what I would consider a social experiment. I don't believe it's going to be a success," he said.

"Having a for-profit agency accountable is difficult at best and there have been failures in other jurisdictions. I think this is going to be problematic. However, when you look at the totality of the legislation ... this is one aspect of concern. There are always going to be aspects of concern."

'Very few times' officers would be suspended without pay

Bordeleau said he's happy about having the option to suspend officers without pay in relation to serious offences committed while off duty, and former chief Vern White — now a Senator — agreed, saying it's a matter of public confidence even though it would be rarely invoked.

"I'm the first to acknowledge there'll be very few times where a police chief will have to use that, but I think having the ability to use that is absolutely integral to maintaining a level of confidence with the public," he said.

White mentioned an example from his tenure of an officer charged with five criminal offences who had to be arrested forcibly.

"Over the next year and a half we continued to pay the individual, even though the crimes that he plead guilty to and was sentenced to were committed while off duty, and we ended up paying salary to him for, I believe, a year and half before we were successful in having him removed from the organization. I think the public is outraged when those cases come to light," White said. 

With files from the CBC's Kristy Nease, Matthew Kupfer, Idil Mussa and Adrian Harewood