The Ontario government plans to cut the budget of the province’s civilian police watchdog by more than 30 per cent, the Star has learned.
In a note sent Thursday to employees of the Special Investigations Unit (SIU), the unit’s executive officer William Curtis says the watchdog has been told its budget for the 2019-20 fiscal year will be $6.9 million. That’s a significant drop from its budgets of $9.2 million in 2016-17, $11 million in 2017-18, and more than $10 million for the current year.
The note, which was obtained by the Star, says SIU managers are putting together a plan to identify potential efficiencies during a time of “severe financial constraint.”
“Together with the ongoing hiring and discretionary spending freezes, these cuts will bring serious fiscal pressures to every aspect of the Unit’s operations,” Curtis wrote.
In the past, the SIU has had an informal arrangement with the Ministry of the Attorney General that allowed for any over-expenditures to be absorbed by the ministry, but “this will no longer be the case,” the note said.
An arms-length civilian agency, the SIU probes deaths, serious injuries and allegations of sexual assault involving police across Ontario. It has the power to lay criminal charges stemming from its investigations.
The budget cut comes just weeks after Premier Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative government passed new policing and civilian police oversight legislation called the Comprehensive Ontario Police Services (COPS) Act. The law establishes new, resource-intensive expectations, including that SIU investigations be completed within a 120-day period and that the watchdog produce detailed public reports on cases where no charges were laid.
In a letter to the province’s standing committee on justice policy last month, former SIU director Tony Loparco was already raising concerns about the SIU’s ability to meet the new requirements.
“With expanding obligations and with the government speaking of further significant cuts to the SIU’s budget, this (120-day) benchmark will be exceeded in almost every case and reduce public confidence in the SIU,” wrote Loparco, who left the SIU last week, after a five-year term.
No other law enforcement agency has a deadline to complete investigations, he added, or the obligation to prepare a public report when no charges are laid.
“Given the statutory obligations on the SIU and the lack of resources to meet those obligations, a 120 (day) deadline is simply unrealistic and is setting the unit up for failure,” Loparco wrote.
SIU spokesperson Monica Hudon said in an email Friday that the watchdog would not speculate on details of the provincial budget, or their impact on the SIU, before its release next week.
The Ministry of the Attorney General did not reply by late Friday afternoon to a request from the Star seeking comment.
“Cutting a budget by a third is going to, I would suggest, have a large impact on the agency’s ability to function, and to function well,” said Akwasi Owusu-Bempah, an assistant professor of criminology at the University of Toronto.
Even before the proposed cut, the SIU budget was a small expense compared to much larger sums spent on policing in the province. In Toronto, the municipal government has spent around $1 billion annually on policing in recent years.
Pointing to the Ford government’s recent announcement that it would invest $10-million into horse racing, Owusu-Bempah said there were other areas where money could have been saved.
“I think this sends the message to police agencies, and to people who support a law-and-order agenda, that we are lessening the ability of an important police oversight agency to fulfil its mandate,” he said.
The SIU is incident driven, meaning its workload depends on how many calls come in from across Ontario. While the agency has not had to decline to conduct probes because it ran out of money, “maybe they will have to (do) that in future,” said Ian Scott, a Toronto lawyer and a former SIU director.
The watchdog’s director technically has the discretion not to conduct an investigation that would otherwise be its responsibility, but that “flies in the face of why we have the SIU in the first place,” Scott said.
“The reason it’s there is for independent, transparent and thorough investigations. Well, if they run out of money, they’re not going to be doing any of those things.”
The new PC government legislation reduces the circumstances under which the SIU gets called in to investigate. For example, police are no longer expected to contact the SIU when a police officer is present at a suicide or a heart attack, provided the chief is certain that police actions did not contribute to the death or injury.
That change will mean the SIU opens fewer investigations. But Scott says the law also includes a new expectation that the watchdog be called in when a police officer fires a gun at a person, regardless of whether anyone was injured. Although Scott says he doesn’t know how many such investigations that will prompt, he nonetheless expects it will increase the workload.
Patrick Watson, a criminologist who teaches at Wilfrid Laurier University, notes that a substantial budget cut may have an impact on the SIU’s ability to invest in the training necessary to keep investigators’ skills up to date.
He pointed to errors that have come to light in the ongoing criminal trial of Ottawa police Const. Daniel Montsion, who is charged with manslaughter, assault with a weapon and aggravated assault in the death of Abdirahman Abdi.
An SIU investigator’s mishandling of video of the interaction could mean that key piece of evidence may be excluded from trial, or the case may be tossed. Court has heard the investigator was inexperienced using proprietary video software, and that the video was corrupted, among other errors.
“Will the SIU be able to invest in training that can prevent those mistakes if their budget is cut by 30 per cent?” said Watson.
The provincial budget will be released April 11.
Wendy Gillis is a Toronto-based reporter covering crime and policing. Reach her by email at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter: @wendygillis