Ontario's police watchdog says its caseload approached 'record-high levels' last year
60% of cases involved injuries sustained in custody, report shows
More than half the cases investigated by Ontario's police watchdog last year involved people injured while in police custody, according to the agency's annual report released Friday.
Of the 380 cases the Special Investigations Unit investigated last year, 229 were related to injuries sustained in custody — representing 60 per cent of the agency's 2017 caseload, the report showed.
Allegations of sexual assault were the second most frequent type of incident investigated last year, with 68 cases probed — representing 18 per cent of the total caseload. Those figures were an increase from 2016, when the SIU probed 43 such cases.
Overall, the number of cases investigated by the SIU last year was up 14 per cent from 2016, SIU director Tony Loparco said in the report.
"This has been a particularly busy and turbulent year," he wrote. "With our caseload approaching record-high levels, and ever increasing in legal and technical complexity, the unit's investigators yet again acquitted themselves impeccably in meeting their daily challenges."
The unit, which investigates incidents involving police where there has been death, serious injury or allegations of sexual assault, laid charges against 20 officers in 18 cases in 2017 — accounting for nearly five per cent of cases closed in that calendar year.
Caseloads at the SIU have steadily increased since its inception in 1990. According to the agency's annual reports, in 1991-92 the watchdog investigated 98 cases.
By 2007-2008, after three consecutive years of increases, the SIU caseload was 246, something that led then director James Cornish to call the regular increases the "new normal." The highest caseload the agency has ever handled was 382 in 2012, the report shows.
SIU spokeswoman Monica Hudon said the report does not explain why cases have increased because that would involve speculation on the part of the agency.
'Increased awareness' of SIU's role
Michael Kempa, an associate criminology professor at the University of Ottawa, said the rising profile of the police watchdog is likely a major contributor to the increased caseload.
"There is an increased awareness of the role of the SIU," he said. "They've had a number of higher profile cases over the last four or five years that led to some disciplinary decisions that were of some controversy. People are more aware of their activity and the complaints are more likely to find themselves into the lap of the SIU."
Kempa said there is now also a higher degree of police compliance with the watchdog. Officers are required by law to contact the SIU whenever there is an incident causing death or serious injury but that didn't always happen in the earlier days of the agency, he added.
"In the past if they kept it quiet ... the SIU might not actually hear about a number of these cases," he said. "The police are complying better now."
In the report, Loparco praised the work of Justice Michael Tulloch, who recommended that the police watchdog be fully independent from the government and have its powers expanded.
Changes to legislation halted
Ontario's new Progressive Conservative government recently halted changes to legislation related to Tulloch's report that would have strengthened oversight of law enforcement and redefined police officers' duties. The government said it will now further consult with stakeholders, including police associations who felt the law was rushed.
Bill 175, dubbed the Safer Ontario Act, passed in the legislature in March and offered the first updates to the Police Services Act in more than 25 years.
Jessica Trepanier, spokeswoman for Attorney General Caroline Mulroney, said the Tory government is committed to ensuring community safety while also ensuring confidence in the police is not "undermined."
"It's why our government has paused the implementation of part of the previous government's Bill 175, to allow for time to conduct a full and thorough review of the legislation by consulting with experts, police services and the public," she said in a statement.