At first glance it appears a troubling statistic: the number of investigations into the conduct of police in Ontario has more than doubled over the past 10 years. But this isn’t necessarily a sign that rogue officers are committing a growing number of offences.
It’s more likely that the work of the civilian Special Investigations Unit, Ontario’s police watchdog, is becoming better known to the public with potential violations far more likely to be reported than in the past. And that’s a healthy development, as far as it goes.
Statistics released recently by the SIU show the agency handled 318 cases in its 2013/2014 reporting year. In contrast, its workload amounted to just 137 cases in 2004/2005.
The SIU scrutinizes all deaths involving police as well as cases of serious injury, including vehicle crashes, and allegations of sexual assault. But the jump in the agency’s efforts over the past decade is centered on a few key categories, especially “custody injuries,” which ballooned to 200 cases from 58 a decade ago.
These are injuries occurring during an “interaction” with officers. And, as reported by the Toronto Star’s Wendy Gillis, the jump in cases comes after SIU pressure on police departments that were failing to report relevant injuries.
Former SIU director Ian Scott, who held the position from 2008 to 2013, had pushed for more official disclosure of such hurts – revelations that enabled the agency to swing into action and investigate. Understanding has broadened, and that appears to be producing results.
Gillis notes that before Scott’s time in office a concussion wasn’t considered serious enough to warrant an SIU investigation. Now — quite rightly — it is.
A significant increase in sexual assault allegations involving police officers is also evident, with 34 cases investigated last year, up from 11 a decade ago. In 2011/2012 there were even more reported incidents, with the SIU investigating 55 alleged offences.
Greater awareness of sexual assault society-wide likely played a significant role in the reporting of such cases as well as more confidence in recent years that a victim’s allegations would be taken seriously.
It’s worth noting that the number of charges leveled against officers after an SIU investigation has also risen, with just four charged in 2004/2005 compared to 11 last year. But even this most recent, higher figure remains small compared to the 318 cases handled by the SIU in 2013/2014.
Considered another way, only about 3.5 per cent of cases investigated by the SIU last year resulted in charges. It’s possible that police are subject to an exceedingly high rate of spurious allegations, or maybe the SIU’s investigators aren’t particularly adept. It seems much more likely that the relatively low charge-rate reflects very real a difficultly in bringing rogue officers to justice. The system remains slanted in their favour.
While there’s some satisfaction in seeing an increase in SIU investigations, society would be better served if more wrongdoers were actually punished.