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Ford government to make changes to Police Services Act

Last Updated Feb 19, 2019 at 7:15 pm EDT

The Ontario government is planning on making some substantial changes to the Police Services Act, virtually dismantling the legislation passed by the Wynne government.

At a news conference Tuesday, the government announced changes to police oversight, overriding what it called Wynne’s “anti-police” bill.

If passed, Attorney General Caroline Mulroney said the Comprehensive Ontario Police Services Act would “streamline and strengthen” the process of the Special Investigations Unit (SIU).

The proposed “changes that would ensure the SIU’s mandate is focused on what it was originally created to do — investigate suspected criminal activity. That’s actually not the case today,” Mulroney said.

She said the SIU wastes time investigating the wrong things, drains resources that could be focused on stopping criminal activity, and leaves police and the public in the dark.

“We listened to our front-line officers when they raised serious concerns about the Liberals’ Bill 175, that the bill was out of touch, that it disrespected police and ignored the every day realities of the jobs that you all do to keep us safe,” Mulroney said.

“That is why when we were elected one of our first orders of business was to pause implementation of this reckless, unbalanced legislation, so that we could fix it in a way that continues to ensure oversight but does so in a way that is balanced, respectful and fair.”

Mulroney said there are cases where officers are “treated like a suspect” where they are trying to save someone’s life — such as administering naloxone or performing CPR. She also said the SIU investigation should be focused on cases where there is a “real risk of criminal conduct” by the officer.

Under the proposed changes, the SIU would have to wrap up its investigation in 120 days.

Mulroney also said a single body will be created to deal with complaints against officers and those complaints will be heard by independent adjudicators.

When asked about carding, Minister of Community Safety and Correctional Services Sylvia Jones said the government will not be bringing back street checks.

The Ford government’s new bill will be introduced in the Ontario legislature on Tuesday.

Bill 175, dubbed the Safer Ontario Act, was the first update since 1990 to the laws governing police services.

Many of the changes made stemmed from report on police oversight by Justice Michael Tulloch and involved over two years of development through consultation.

The updated rules focused on increasing the scope of what the three police oversight agencies can investigate and added extra accountability measures.

Ford announced back in July of 2018 they would be pausing changes to the legislation for further consultations, including with police associations who felt the law had been rushed.

During his first throne speech, Ford also made a vague nod to the government’s decision to halt the overhaul of the SIU when he said, “You can count on the government to respect the men and women of Ontario’s police services — by freeing them of the onerous restrictions that treat those in uniform as subjects of suspicion and scorn.”

What was in the Safer Ontario Act?

The Safer Ontario Act, passed in the legislature on March 8, 2018, defined the core duties of a police officer and those of special constables, while also making several changes to the Police Services Act.

Most of the changes came to the most well-known police oversight agency, the Special Investigations Unit. The bill required the SIU to report publicly on all of its investigations and release the names of officers charged.

The SIU is required to investigate when police officers are involved in an incident where someone has been seriously injured, dies or alleges sexual assault.

Bill 175 also expanded the powers of the SIU to include both current and former officers, volunteers members of police services, special constables, off-duty officers, and members of First Nation police services.

Police officers who didn’t comply with SIU investigations could be fined up to $50,000/year or be sent to jail for up to one year. The Police Services Act previously did not force officers to co-operate with the SIU.

An Inspector General was stabled to oversee police services, with the power to investigate and audit them. The bill also gave power to the Ontario ombudsman to investigate complaints against police oversight bodies.

The new legislation would also allow suspensions without pay when an officer is in custody or charged with a serious federal offence that was allegedly committed off-duty. This would bring Ontario police services in line with the rest of the country.

Under the Safer Ontario Act, the Office of the Independent Police Review Director was renamed the Ontario Policing Complaints Agency and would investigate all public complaints against police officers while the Ontario Civilian Police Commission became the Ontario Policing Discipline Tribunal which would be dedicated to adjudicating police disciplinary matters.

Both of their mandates were also expanded.

Reaction to the Safer Ontario Act

The reforms passed by the Wynne government were largely endorsed by police boards, the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police and advocates for tougher oversight of police.

The NDP criticized the bill when it was passed, saying they would like to see it repealed. NDP House Leader at the time Gilles Bisson said the legislation made police oversight and accountability, which they did support, contingent on contracting out public safety and policing to private sector security firms.

However in July when Ford paused the changes to the Police Services Act, Leader Andrea Horwath said they were very concerned about the lack of progress made in terms of police oversight.

Major police associations also said the changes would pave the way for privatization by strictly defining officer duties and referring others for outsourcing.

A statement released by the Police Association of Ontario, the Toronto Police Association and the Ontario Provincial Police Association called the bill “deeply flawed” and said the government was rushed in passing Bill 175.

With files from the Canadian Press