New 'independent' avenue for police complaints

by Bill Jackson - The Regional

April 14, 2010

A new system for the public to file complaints pertaining to police and policing can deal with systemic issues related to policy.

Gerry McNeilly, Ontario's independent police review director, said the system also aims to look at complaints on a case-by-case basis, maintain neutrality and improve communication, "because the police need the public and the public needs the police."

In 2004, the Ontario government asked Justice Patrick LeSage, former Chief Justice of the Superior Court on Ontario, to carry out an independent review of the police complaint system.

"In carrying out this research and this review, Justice LeSage found an overwhelming consensus among groups that he met that police officers were no more likely to engage in misconduct than any other professional group," McNeilly said during a conference call organized by the Ontario Community Newspaper Association. "Nevertheless he (LeSage) said concerns were raised about the legitimacy and the integrity of investigation of public complaints being carried out by the same police service as a subject of the complaint."

Until the Office of the Independent Police Review Director (PIPRD) opened on Oct. 19, 2009, public complaints pertaining to police and policing in Ontario ere handled by police service boards and police organizations contracted by municipalities, such as the O.P.P.

"It was found that a system where police investigated themselves would never satisfy the public concern that it wasn't biased in favour of the police," McNeilly explained, "but that a purely civilian system could be inefficient, bureaucratic, and would effectively remove responsibility for police managers in managing their own offices."

LeSage consulted with approximately 200 people and organizations and examined other complaint review systems across Canada and around the world. He concluded the best system would combine police involvement with independent civilian oversight and that it must become accountable, fair, efficient and transparent. He made 27 recommendations for a new independent body to administer complaints.

The Ontario government created legislation and passed the Independent Police Review Act in 2007.

The OIPRD was established as an "arm's length agency of the attorney general," said McNeilly. "It means that the agency is independent of the government, it's independent of the public, and it's independent of the police...

"We're not here to represent or advocate for the police, neither are we here to advocate or represent the public. We're a mutual body and in that sense, when we get complaints, we look at each and every complaint on a case-by-case basis as to the merits of the complaint in accordance with the legislation, and then decide what to do in accordance with the legislation."

McNeilly, a lawyer by  profession, having served as a justice of the peace, deputy judge and chair of the Board of Inquiry for the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal, was asked to set up a civilian agency for managing, overseeing and dealing with all public complaints regarding policing in Ontario.

He currently heads the new independent office consisting of approximately 50 staff members including an investigative team of 10 people, four of them former police officers.

"I will consult and collaborate with public and police, but will always act independently," McNeilly said.

With the complaint system now fully implemented, the process is running effectively and efficiently, he believes.

There are approximately 27,000 sworn police officers across the province. The office has received approximately 1100 complaints since opening last October. Many have been conduct-specific involving perceived incivility during highway traffic stops and interactions, McNeilly said. "How people are being treated and spoken to."

According to Rosemary Parker, a communications consultant for the OIPRD, 210 complaints have been from the Central West Region. Of those, there have been 153 conduct complaints, three service complaints and two complaints about police policy. There was only one complaint regarding the Haldimand County OPP that was screened out and closed for reasons set out by the Police Services Act.

"As of October 19 (2009) we could only deal with matters that occurred October 19 or forward, nothing in the past," McNeilly explained.

The OIPRD does not deal with complaints about aboriginal police forces, but anyone from across Ontario can lodge a complaint within six months of an incident. The office will get back to the complainant within two days of receiving a complaint and will determine whether it warrants an investigation within two weeks.

"We treat all complaints the same. We look at a complaint and we do not try to figure out if the person is an aboriginal or not," McNeilly said. "We simply look at the complaint, we look to see if there is merit in the complaint, if it falls within the legislation and we process it in the same way...

"I do have a role to deal with systemic issues," he added. "If a systemic issue shows up and we have a complaint or series of complaints from a particular area that raises some concerns, I have the ability to review that and to investigate that."

McNeilly concluded that part of his role is "to enhance the trust and confidence in policing."

Log onto www.oiprd.on.ca for more information.