Cover of report, Oversight UnseenInvestigation into the Special Investigations Unit's operational effectiveness and credibility.

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Executive Summary

1               Canada received considerable unfavourable international attention last fall when millions witnessed the graphic video images of the last terrifying moments in the life of Robert Dziekanski.  After a long and delayed international flight from his native Poland, Mr. Dziekanski arrived at Vancouver Airport, only to spend hours wandering hopelessly, unable to communicate or to obtain the assistance he needed to exit and meet up with his mother.  As Mr. Dziekanski became increasingly confused and agitated, RCMP officers arrived and, within minutes, stunned him with a Taser.  He was then restrained, and died shortly thereafter.  In the aftermath of this tragedy, public accusations were made of coverup and police using excessive force.  People demanded assurance that the truth surrounding his ill-fated encounter with police would be revealed, and many voiced distrust of any investigation that would involve police investigating police.

2               To Ontario’s great credit, incidents in this province involving serious injury and death of civilians resulting from police contact are not investigated by police officials, but by the Special Investigations Unit (SIU), a civilian criminal investigative agency.  Created in 1990, the SIU’s existence is a testament to the strength of democratic principles in this province, and the value our government has placed on reinforcing public confidence in policing. 

3               Unfortunately, over the past two years, several serious concerns have been raised by individuals, families, lawyers and community advocates who complained to my Office about the credibility and effectiveness of the SIU.

4               As previous independent reviews have documented, the SIU’s early history was marked by successive governments failing to provide it with adequate resources, and by police officials aggressively resisting its oversight.  While its resources have increased over time, and regulatory requirements now more clearly define police obligations, my investigation found that the Special Investigations Unit continues to struggle to assert its authority, maintain its balance against powerful police interests, and carry out its mandate effectively.

5               The SIU is still very much a fledgling organization.  It does not have its own constituting legislation, its mandate lacks clarity, it is administratively and technically challenged and it is dependent on the Ministry of the Attorney General.

6               In turn, the Ministry of the Attorney General has relied on the SIU to soothe police and community sensibilities and to ward off controversy. But in doing so, it has also overstepped the bounds of independent governance.  The Director’s performance is subjectively evaluated and rewarded, compromising the SIU’s structural integrity and independence.  Its credibility as an independent investigative agency is further undermined by the predominant presence and continuing police links of former police officials within the SIU.  It is so steeped in police culture that it has, at times, even tolerated the blatant display of police insignia and police affiliation.  

7               In addition to lacking the necessary statutory authority to act decisively when police officials fail to comply with regulatory requirements, the SIU often ignores the tools it does have, such as public censure, and adopts an impotent stance in the face of police challenge.  Delays in police providing notice of incidents, in disclosing notes, and in submitting to interviews are endemic.  Rather than vigorously inquiring into and documenting delays and other evidence of police resistance, the SIU deals with issues of police non-co-operation as isolated incidents.  It ignores systemic implications and attempts to solve individual problems through a conciliatory approach.

8               The SIU has not only become complacent about ensuring that police officials follow the rules, it has bought into the fallacious argument that SIU investigations aren’t like other criminal cases, and that it is acceptable to treat police witnesses differently from civilians.  Police interviews are rarely held within the regulatory time frames, and are all too often postponed – for weeks, sometimes even months.  The SIU will not inconvenience officers or police forces by interviewing officers off duty.  When it encounters overt resistance from police officials, the SIU pursues a low-key diplomatic approach that flies under the public radar.  If disagreement cannot be resolved, the SIU more often than not simply accepts defeat.

9               The SIU also fails to respond to incidents with rigour and urgency – at times inexplicably overlooking the closest investigators, and following routines that result in precious investigative minutes, sometimes hours, being lost.  It has become mired in its own internal events, and introspective focus.

10            The SIU’s system of oversight is out of balance.  It must not only ensure accountability of police conduct, but be perceived by the public as doing so.  At present, the public is expected to trust that the SIU conducts thorough and objective investigations and accept that its decisions are well founded when it decides, for example, not to charge officers.  But much remains hidden from public view, including Director’s reports and significant policy issues.  In order to properly serve the function it was created to fulfill, greater transparency is required with respect to the SIU’s investigative outcomes, as well as those of the police disciplinary system triggered by SIU investigations.