Many investigators are former cops, prompting criticism that the SIU needs more civilians to gain public confidence.
Their task: police the police.
Their problem: ex-police do the policing.
Since its inception a quarter-century ago, that has been one of the sticking points for critics of the province’s Special Investigations Unit (SIU). The oversight body that probes fatal incidents involving police is itself partly staffed with former cops. André Marin, former Ontario ombudsman and SIU director in the mid-1990s, said investigators have been known to show up to work wearing old police rings and police ties.
“We couldn’t get them to stop,” he said in an interview Friday. “I thought it was a factory producing these cookie-cutter figures: early 50s, white men who had spent 30 years working as police officers.”
At a moment of heightened scrutiny and criticism — calls to identify to the police officer that shot and killed Andrew Loku and release the report that cleared the cop of criminal wrongdoing in his death — it’s worth asking: who is the SIU?
Jason Gennaro, an SIU spokesperson, told the Star in an emailed statement that 80 people work at the organization.
The main hub is at the head office in Mississauga, home to SIU director Tony Loparco — a former Crown attorney — and much of the organization’s top brass. This includes executive officer William Curtis, the overseer of the investigative wing, who was a Guelph police officer for 22 years before joining the SIU in 2000, according to the website.
Gennaro said the SIU has 14 lead investigators, and that “only three” of them have “any policing experience.” The SIU also employs eight forensic officers, an in-house lawyer, administrative managers, transcribers and clerks. There are 31 other investigators who are stationed around the province and brought in as needed, Gennaro said.
It isn’t clear how many of them are former police; Gennaro did not disclose the background of employees other than the 14 lead investigators.
Peter Rosenthal, a Toronto lawyer, said it should be easier to find out who they are.
“I don’t see any reason for secrecy about that,” he said. “They should be proud of their investigators.”
The rationale for ex-cops working at the SIU can be traced back to 1989, when the Policing and Race Relations Task Force that spurred the organization’s creation recommended that former detectives should investigate incidents involving police. The idea was that, because they have the expertise and experience of criminal inquiries, they were the best fit for the job.
To avoid conflicts of interest, the legislation governing the SIU includes a clause that prohibits investigators from probing incidents involving a member of a police force where they used to work.
Another line of thinking to support ex-cops in this job is that investigators with policing experience will be given higher respect and status from subject officers, and therefore get further in their searches for information, said Paul McKenna, president of Public Safety Innovation and an adjunct professor at Dalhousie University.
McKenna co-authored a 2007 study that looked at police conduct investigation bodies around the world, concluding that the most effective models, like the SIU, have a civilian at the top and employ a mix of former cops and civilians as investigators.
But McKenna said his position has evolved in the face of waning public confidence in the SIU and its analogues in other provinces. He now argues there should be more civilian investigators because this would improve the public’s belief in the independence and fairness of SIU activities.
“People get a bad taste in their mouths when they see police are investigating themselves,” he said.
Sandy Hudson, co-founder of the Black Lives Matter Toronto movement that protested the Loku decision outside police headquarters from mid-March to early April, said she wants more transparency from the SIU. A start would be to post all of the SIU’s employees displayed on the organization’s website, she said.
Hudson added that she is suspicious that former police working as investigators could exhibit the same lack of understanding about “systemic racism” that she charges is on display among leaders in law enforcement agencies across the province.
“How do we know that they’re not affected by that kind of culture?” she asked. “That’s a huge problem.”