The mandate of Ontario’s Special Investigations Unit has been brought to the spotlight after the death of Sammy Yatim, who died following an “interaction” with Toronto police while on board an empty streetcar last week.
Video of the incident posted online shows Yatim, armed with a knife, on board an empty streetcar on Dundas Street West near Bathurst Street. Several officers surround the streetcar before a total of nine gunshots can be heard.
The SIU has confirmed Yatim died of multiple gunshot wounds. A conducted energy weapon was also deployed after he was shot. The SIU assigned a total of eight investigators to look into the incident, identifying 22 potential witness officers and one officer considered a suspect.
The suspect was later identified as Const. James Forcillo, a six-year veteran of the force. He has been suspended with pay pending the outcome of the investigation.
The public nature of the Yatim shooting, and the outrage that surrounds the incident, will keep the spotlight on the SIU over the course of its investigation. And there have been questions about how effective the unit can be.
[ More Brew: Ombudsman considers probe after Sammy Yatim shooting ]
Despite an increase in the number of cases investigated by the SIU, an arms-length agency tasked with watching over the provinces police forces, relatively few move beyond that stage.
That track record, combined with doubts about its breadth of authority – which once prompted the province’s ombudsman to call the SIU a “toothless tiger” – could serve to damped expectations.
In an article written by Ombudsman Andre Marin last year, he expressed the public’s right to doubt the ability of police investigating police. And while the SIU acts independent of Ontario police forces, there have been questions of how autonomous it actually is.
Marin noted an investigation found the vast majority of part-time SIU investigators and forensic investigative technicians had come from policing backgrounds. He cited equity hiring programs as one bid to break that bond.
“The presence of so many former long-serving police officers in the SIU ranks had a significant influence on its work culture and naturally sparked public speculation about its ability to act impartially in conducting investigations of police,” Marin wrote.
Those details comes from a 2008 report entitled Oversight Unseen, which questioned the SIU’s ability to police the province's police forces and made more than 20 recommendations on how unit could be more effective.
The report noted the lack of charges laid by the SIU over the course of its history, but said, “It is the quality of investigations, not the quantity of charges, that is the true measure of the SIU’s competence.”
The report further noted that many charges laid by the SIU don't actually make it to trial. In the 50 charges laid by SIU before April 2001, 14 were never tried.
[ More Brew: What we know about Const. James Forcillo ]
A damning investigation conducted by the Toronto Star found that trend has survived. Of the 3,400 investigations held between the SIU's creation in 1990 and 2010, only 95 cases ended in criminal charges. Of those, 16 officers were convicted of a crime. Only three were sent to prison.
Here is a breakdown of investigations held, and charges laid, by the SIU over the past few fiscal years:
2011-2012: 304 investigations; 13 charges
2010-2011: 291 investigations; 12 charges
2009-2010: 287 investigations; 12 charges.
What happens to officers once the SIU has recommended charges, however, falls outside the unit’s purview. As Marin points out in his 2008 report, once charges are laid the cases are turned over to the Ministry of the Attorney General, which decides whether to proceed with prosecution.
"It is not simply a question of whether or not an officer’s conduct was unlawful. They also must take into account whether prosecution is in the public interest and whether there is a reasonable prospect of conviction," Marin wrote.
He was, however, less generous in comments made following the death of Sammy Yatim. Marin underlined previous doubts about the SIU’s ability to investigate such incidents and stated that receiving co-operation from the police force is the “exception, not the norm.” Toronto police have disputed that claim.
Semantics and statistics aside, the SIU will investigate the Yatim shooting on its own merits. They will decide whether to recommend charges based on all the the evidence available. Even if history suggests the chances are slim.
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