Ottawa residents pack meeting for rare opportunity to question SIU

The Special Investigations Unit usually stays out of the spotlight, conducting its investigations away from the public eye. But on Wednesday night in Ottawa, Ontario's police watchdog made an exception and accepted an invitation to speak publicly.

SIU asked to explain why investigations take so long and why so few officers are ever charged

About 70 people packed the meeting to ask questions of the SIU, including why their investigations can take a long time. (Steve Fischer)

The Special Investigations Unit usually stays out of the spotlight, conducting its investigations away from the public eye.

But on Wednesday night Ontario's police watchdog made an exception, accepting an invitation from COMPAC — the Community and Police Action Committee — to speak publicly in Ottawa about the SIU's often controversial work.

If the three SIU members who attended the event had prepared themselves for a lot of tough questions, especially about their investigation into the death of Abdirahman Abdi, those questions didn't materialize.

Investigation into Abdi case continues

Abdi died last July during a confrontation with two Ottawa police officers in Hintonburg.

As with all deaths involving police officers, the SIU was called in to investigate. Seven months later it has yet to issue a report on the investigation or announce if the two officers will be charged or not.

SIU spokesperson Jason Gennaro opened his remarks by saying he could not talk about any specific ongoing investigation and so no one in the audience of about 70 people asked about Abdi.
Abdirahman Abdi, 37, died one day after he was arrested by Ottawa police on July 24. (Supplied photo)

But audience member Tamika Brown did question why the SIU takes so long to conduct its investigations, especially compared to police investigations into crimes committed by the general public.

Gennaro said that's because many of the SIU investigations "are serious cases, death cases, potential homicides, and so some of these take longer than a normal case would."

He added that unlike police investigations, where the investigating officer determines if charges will be laid and must often do so expeditiously because of concerns for public safety, SIU investigators are required to complete their entire investigation before submitting their findings to the SIU's director.

The director then reviews all the information before deciding if charges against the officer are warranted. 

Questions raised about why so few police officers charged

Several other residents questioned why so few police are ever charged as a result of SIU investigations.

Gennaro presented the most recent statistics for 2016 to the audience, which show that the SIU investigated 327 cases province-wide and charged 20 officers. That means 95 per cent of the officers investigated by SIU were not charged.

SIU spokesperson Jason Gennaro responded to most of the questions posed by audience members at the public meeting Wednesday night. (Steve Fischer)

Gennaro said he could not discuss individual cases or explain why charges are only laid about five per cent of the time.

He did say the SIU has safeguards in place to insure investigations are thorough and unbiased.

Those who attended the meeting said they were glad to see members of the SIU finally appear before them in person to hear their concerns.

But Jacqueline Gibson said she wishes they would have come sooner, preferably before an independent provincial review of the SIU visited Ottawa last fall.