Calling the previous government’s police legislation a “disaster,” Ontario’s community safety minister announced proposed new legislation governing policing and its oversight Tuesday morning.
Saying the Safer Ontario Act, the Liberal government’s omnibus police legislation passed less than a year ago, viewed “every police officer in Ontario as a potential criminal,” Sylvia Jones, minister of community safety and correctional services, unveiled proposed new police laws she said would “fix” the previous legislation.
“Make no mistake, the Liberals’ Bill 175 was, quite frankly, the most anti-police legislation in Canadian history. It was a disaster. It would have actively undermined police efforts,” Jones said in a press conference at Halton Regional Police headquarters in Oakville Tuesday.
Jones, alongside Attorney General Caroline Mulroney, announced changes that include the “streamlining” of Ontario’s police watchdog, the Special Investigations Unit (SIU), which investigates deaths, serious injuries and allegations of sexual assault against police officers in the province.
Proposed changes would include mandating a 120-day limit on all investigations by the police watchdog, and “clarifying” what it should be probing, as the current process “wastes time and energy” investigating the wrong things, Mulroney said.
Jeff McGuire, the executive director of the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police, said that would shorten the “unfathomable” length of time for SIU investigations.
“The trauma and victimization that officers underwent for responding to 911 calls and trying to do what was right was not fair,” he said Tuesday.
The proposed new legislation, called the Comprehensive Ontario Police Services Act, would also lower the expectations around when a police service is required to contact the SIU, limiting it to “circumstances we would all reasonably expect,” Mulroney said.
That includes when a death or serious injury results from police officer use of force, or a detention, or a motor vehicle chase. It would also include all allegations of sexual assault and every time a police officer fires their gun at a person.
“In all other circumstances, notification of the SIU would only be required where police chiefs and other designated authorities reasonably believe that the official’s conduct may have been a contributing factor in the incident,” Mulroney said.
That would mean in cases where, for example, a police officer was present when someone committed suicide, there would no longer be an expectation that the SIU would be called in.
“Unlike the Liberals, we recognize front-line police officers for who they are: everyday heroes in our community,” said Mulroney.
The proposed new police laws would also make changes to the province’s police complaints agency, the Office of the Independent Police Review Director (OIPRD), which would become the Law Enforcement Complaints Agency. That agency would then assign the investigation of the complaints back to a police service — possibly the employer of the officer the complaint relates to — or an agency investigator.
That’s a departure from the police complaints system created under the previous Bill 175, which had required that, within five years, the province’s police complaint watchdog become fully independent. That meant it would no longer refer any complaints back to the police service where the complaint originated, to ensure a fully independent investigation.
When it passed last year, Bill 175 was hailed by some as historic and overdue, strengthening police oversight and granting new powers to the SIU. That included giving the watchdog the ability to lay any criminal charge uncovered during an investigation. It also gave the SIU the power to impose penalties on police officers who fail to co-operate with investigations — granting it the ability to fine an officer $25,000 or more or face a year in jail after, for example, failing to notify the SIU when a member of the public was seriously injured in a police encounter.
“I think that many people including myself feel that, although there are certain parts of it that aren’t perfect, it put Ontario really at the forefront of balanced policing legislation,” University of Toronto law professor Kent Roach, an expert in policing, told the Star last year.
In one of his first acts as premier last summer, Doug Ford halted the implementation of the new SIU act that was part of Bill 175, saying it was the first step towards “fixing” police legislation.
Wendy Gillis is a Toronto-based reporter covering crime and policing. Reach her by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter: @wendygillis
Rob Ferguson is a Toronto-based reporter covering Ontario politics. Follow him on Twitter: @robferguson1