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Province beefs up police complaint system

Choice of director will set the tone for new agency

Ontario queers who face police harassment or brutality will no longer be forced to file complaints with the offending officer’s own force, although that force may end up investigating it anyway.

Provincial Attorney General Michael Bryant introduced legislation on Apr 19 that would set up an independent civilian agency to investigate complaints against police and to review police conduct.

Those dealing with cases of police abuse say the establishment of such an agency would be a very positive move.

“I’ve assisted many people with complaints and certainly there’s been an intimidation factor,” says Howard Shulman, coordinator of the 519 Community Centre’s antiviolence program and a member of the LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans] Community Police Consultative Committee. “It sounds like it’s a good step.

“Each year, we get around 10 complaints [against police], but that’s only the ones that are reported to The 519. That’s everything from [allegations of] verbal harassment to physical assault.”

Police forces have internally investigated complaints for the past decade, since the Mike Harris Conservative government dismantled the previous system of civilian oversight. The Liberal government asked Patrick Lesage, former chief justice of Ontario’s Superior Court Of Justice, to investigate that system of internal review; the new legislation is based largely on Lesage’s recommendations.

Bryant told the legislature that he wanted to establish a system “that has the confidence and the respect of both the public and the police.”

The legislation calls for the establishment of an independent civilian body, led by an independent police review director, who would be responsible for the initial screening of all police complaints. The director would have the authority to decide on a case-by-case basis whether to have their own staff investigate or refer it to the police service involved or a different police service for investigation.

Brendan Crawley, a spokesperson for the Ministry Of The Attorney General, says the agency would take about a year to establish and would have an annual budget of $6 million. The first step if the legislation passes, he says, would be for the government to hire the director.

“The person would have to be acceptable to both the police and the public,” says Crawley. “The person would need to have an intimate knowledge of policing and the history of policing in the province.”

Crawley says the process by which the director would be found hasn’t been settled, which concerns observers like Shulman, who worry that the province’s minority communities will be left out.

“I’m looking to find out how this body will be established and run,” he says. “Who the person is going to be will set a lot of the tone. We’re hoping for someone who has knowledge of Toronto and its diversity.”

Crawley says the legislation still allows the discipline for a police officer to be determined by the chief of a force, although the director of the new agency will be able to review the decision. The legislation isn’t clear on what happens if the director feels the discipline is too lenient. Crawley says he also expects police will be required to cooperate with the new agency.

“It would be our anticipation that cooperation by individual police officers would be no different than it is now. If the chief of police is investigating now, officers are required to cooperate.”