Thursday, May 28, 1998
Police aim to scrap complaint bureauCritics say ending arm's length investigations a dangerous move
The Toronto police force plans to disband its 33-year-old independent public complaints bureau, the Star has learned.
Under new proposals, the bureau's 15 investigating officers would be working in the same police division as the officers they will be probing.
Critics, including police services board chair Norm Gardner, say the changes, expected to be proposed next month by Chief David Boothby, will seriously damage public faith in the force's ability to hold its officers accountable.
"I'm not crazy about it at all," Gardner said yesterday. He said he has been aware of the force's intent for some time and has let Boothby "know where I stand on it."
Toronto lawyer Bruce Durno, president of the Ontario Criminal Lawyers Association, said the move would destroy the perception that complaints are investigated thoroughly.
"One of the things you've got to look at is public confidence, and the changes have serious implications. And although this is permitted (by law), it certainly isn't going to do anything to enhance public confidence," Durno said.
Gardner said the recommended changes and closing of the Public Complaints Investigation Bureau, which handles serious citizen complaints against officers, are motivated by an effort to save money.
While the complaints bureau cost $1.94 million to run last year, most of that -- $1.55 million -- went to salaries. Closing the office will cut $150,000 from the force's more than $500 million annual budget.
"I just don't think the optics are very good and I don't think that it's going to work well in terms of getting the kind of investigations that are as good as they are now," Gardner said.
Critics attack police move"The (complaint) unit works well the way it is. The investigations have a consistency to them and I'm afraid we might lose consistency and we might have our investigations compromised if you have, in fact, an investigator who is investigating people working out of the same division. "From my perspective, I'd rather have things at more of an arm's-length basis."
Boothby is expected to deliver a "policy directive" concerning the complaints bureau to the police services board June 18.
Police sources say the directive recommends closing the bureau, a nondescript office in a high-rise office building at Yonge St. and Lawrence Ave., where people can lodge complaints without bumping into the very officers they have a problem with.
The bureau's 15 investigators would move into police divisions. In 1965, the practice of having Toronto officers investigate their colleagues was scrapped because of concerns about bias and fears they wouldn't conduct proper inquiries.
The force established the independent bureau to bolster the public's confidence that complaints were taken seriously.
In an interview last year, Boothby said the force would maintain the independent bureau but shift complaints deemed less serious to unit commanders. He also said he would look into staffing problems that were affecting the quality of investigations.
"I have no Idea who's pushing this, but it came right from the top""I mean, if they have a heavy workload, and I know they have a heavy workload .... (if) that prohibits them from investigating thoroughly ... then we have to get more people up there," Boothby said.
A request to speak to Boothby on the issue went unanswered yesterday. The apparent change of plans means the concept of arm's-length investigations would be gone.
"I have no idea who's pushing this, but it came right from the top," said one police source. "The next step, if it's approved, will decentralize completely the bureau. The bureau will disappear." then the only chance of an investigation being conducted by officers at arm's length would be if Internal Affairs decided the complaints is very serious.
An internal force study of 1996 complaints files found that one-third were considered serious. But Internal Affairs, a unit based out of police headquarters, rarely initiates investigations based on citizen complaints. Discipline statistics show most Internal affairs probes are launched based on information from other officers.
The Toronto force's move follows changes to the provincial Police Act that were pushed into law late last year by the Tory government. The changes gave wide-ranging power to police forces to handle complaints as they choose.
"Until there's a new government, there's not going to be any alternative"A Star analysis last year showed 99 per cent of complaints filed against Toronto officers from 1992 to 1996 were dismissed. Last year was no different. Officers are much more likely to be disciplined over internal matters, such as disobeying an order, than over a public complaint.
"Until there's a new government, there's not going to be any alternative. There is no point in running this operation because no one will use it," said Clay Ruby, a noted criminal lawyer and outspoken critic of the complaint system.
"These (police complaint investigators) will be twiddling their thumbs all day, because they have nothing to do. The number of people complaining will drop like a stone. If you want no complaints, you do what (the government and Toronto force) have done." In fact, the numbers have been falling.
Up to 1992, the average yearly number of complaints was consistent at 1,000 to 1,200. Since then, there has been a steady decline. Figures for 1997, released last week, show 720 complaints were filed.
Police speculate the drop is due to a decrease in uniform officers and a clearer understanding of misconduct and its consequences.
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