70% of SIU probes into Ottawa police never publicized
CBC News analyzed 10 years of watchdog's investigations into actions of Ottawa police officers
A CBC News analysis of 10 years of Special Investigations Unit probes into the actions of Ottawa police officers shows the police watchdog only issued news releases — the manner by which the public normally learns of the investigations — 30 per cent of the time.
The analysis also revealed that when cases are publicized, it doesn't happen consistently.
And allegations of sexual assault against Ottawa police are only publicized when officers are criminally charged, which happened in only about 13 per cent of the cases the oversight body looked into.
Academics and others scrutinizing sexual assault investigations say access to timely information about the SIU's cases is vital because it would open the system to public scrutiny that could in turn improve the watchdog's investigations and improve policing.
"We need — the public needs, and will only benefit — when we have all of the data that is available," said Paul McKenna, an adjunct professor at Dalhousie University who has researched police oversight bodies around the world.
Currently, the public can only get access to details about ongoing SIU investigations if the agency decides to issue a news release.
People can find out how many times police are investigated in an appendix of the SIU's annual reports, but it doesn't specify the outcome of the investigations and doesn't contain details about the cases. As well, it sometimes takes years for the reports to be published.
Using access to information laws, CBC obtained a record of every investigation into Ottawa police conducted by the SIU from 2007 to present, and checked to see whether news releases were issued in each case.
Only 45 of 144 cases publicized
From Jan. 1, 2007, to the end of October 2017, there were 144 completed investigations into Ottawa police.
The SIU issued news releases in 45 of those 144 cases. That means 99 investigations — about 70 per cent — were never publicized.
Of the 45 cases the SIU did publicize, its process was inconsistent.
Monica Hudon, the watchdog's spokesperson, wrote in an emailed statement that "for a number of years" and under "at least two different directors," the SIU has been committed to issuing news releases in all cases involving the death of someone, the use of a firearm, or a major vehicle collision, as well as when officers are charged or cases are dropped because they end up not meeting the SIU's criteria for getting involved.
But an analysis shows the SIU hasn't always met that bar.
Some deaths never publicized
Three deaths involving Ottawa police in 2007, 2009 and 2013 were never publicized. Two other deaths in 2012 and 2013 were only publicized when the investigations ended after the officers were cleared of wrongdoing.
In another death in 2007, a news release was issued at the start of the investigation, but there was no follow-up when police were cleared of wrongdoing.
One serious firearm injury in 2008 was never publicized, and a 2009 shooting death was never followed up on. Police were cleared in both cases.
Ian Scott, who led the SIU from October 2008 to October 2013, said his goal was to increase transparency and issue news releases about every death investigation, as well as cases that generated publicity.
"If one or two got missed I'm sorry to hear that. It's not a good thing, because I believe the public ought to know about these," he said.
According to Hudon, the SIU opens hundreds of investigations each year, and given the unit's resources, it isn't feasible to issue news releases each time.
Sexual assault allegations
As for allegations of sexual assault, the SIU's policy is not to publicize the cases unless an officer is charged. Their stated aim is to protect the privacy of both the complainant and the accused officer.
I think this kind of [lack of] transparency has the potential to undermine public confidence in the justice system, and it's already pretty low when it comes to sexual assault.- Holly Johnson, University of Ottawa
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 and the officer who is the subject of the allegation," Hudon wrote.
Holly Johnson, an associate professor of criminology at the University of Ottawa who specializes in the legal and social responses to violence against women, said she finds that policy troubling.
"I think this kind of [lack of] transparency has the potential to undermine public confidence in the justice system, and it's already pretty low when it comes to sexual assault," Johnson said.
Oversight 'critically important'
A 2015 study by Johnson found some women alleging sexual assault believed the Ottawa police officer they first turned to blamed them for it, or didn't take their complaint seriously.
Having more information about the SIU's investigations into sexual assault allegations against Ottawa police may uncover similar issues, and could help improve the investigations, she said.
"I think oversight of policing bodies is critically important, and I think it would allow some public oversight even without ... naming or identifying victims or an accused person. I think it would indicate where there are problems in policing," Johnson said.
But former SIU director Ian Scott said it's difficult to compose news releases in such a way that they protect the identity of the people involved. Scott cautioned publicizing sex assault investigations might have a chilling effect on complainants.
"Is that going to encourage more people to make complaints when they read press releases about unnamed police officers not being charged?" he asked.
Bill aims to improve reporting
The Safer Ontario Act, a bill introduced at Queen's Park last week based on Justice Michael Tulloch's extensive report on police oversight, includes several changes aimed at improving the SIU's public reporting process.
- The SIU would be able to make public statements during investigations when they're aimed at preserving public confidence in police.
- If charges are laid against an officer, it would be mandatory for the SIU to give "public notice," including the officer's name (unless identifying them might identify a sexual assault complainant), the charges laid, when they were laid, and information about the first court appearance. It's not clear whether issuing a media release is considered "giving public notice."
- If charges aren't laid, the SIU director would be obligated to publish a report on the unit's website containing, among other things, a detailed narrative of events, summaries of the investigative process and relevant evidence, and the reasons for not laying charges.
Reports about charges not being laid in sexual assault cases would be redacted to ensure privacy.
But the director would also be able to decide, after consulting with the complainant, not to publish a report at all if the complainant's desire for privacy outweighs the public interest.
Starting this past May, the Ministry of the Attorney General has been releasing SIU reports in cases where officers have been cleared of wrongdoing, but reports about alleged sexual assaults have not been included.
Matt Skof, head of the union representing rank-and-file Ottawa police officers, said the changes won't have much of an impact on his members, who he said are already seeing a lot of news coverage about SIU investigations.
"What we're seeing in our experience in Ottawa is that the vast majority of our cases are very heavily reported in the media already, so to see an increase in SIU's reporting requirements is really not going to have a significant impact in Ottawa," Skof said.