City council votes to have ombudsman oversee Toronto police to enhance accountability

·4 min read
'This is a groundbreaking step in independent, local police accountability on behalf of the people of Toronto,' says Ombudsman Susan Opler. (Richard Agecoutay/CBC - image credit)
'This is a groundbreaking step in independent, local police accountability on behalf of the people of Toronto,' says Ombudsman Susan Opler. (Richard Agecoutay/CBC - image credit)

Toronto council voted unanimously Thursday to give the city's ombudsman the authority to review police procedures and programs.

In a release, Ombudsman Toronto called the move the "biggest change in police oversight in Toronto's recent history."

"This is a groundbreaking step in independent, local police accountability on behalf of the people of Toronto," said Ombudsman Susan Opler.

"It comes at a critically-important time, when public trust in police and policing institutions is low and calls for policing reform echo nationwide."

In an interview with CBC News, Opler said it's sad that public confidence seems to be lacking in the police.. But, she noted, it's that kind of neutrality that makes an ombudsman good for the job.

"The power of an ombudsman is two things: It's the power of persuasion and it's the power of the voice," she said.

Ombudsman Susan Opler says her office will examine the real-life impact that the Toronto Police Service's policies and procedures have on residents in the city.
Ombudsman Susan Opler says her office will examine the real-life impact that the Toronto Police Service's policies and procedures have on residents in the city.(John Rieti/CBC)

Ombudsman Toronto will begin its oversight role after the negotiation of a new memorandum of understanding with the Toronto Police Services Board and the force.

The independent office will make recommendations, such as practical solutions to improve fairness and accountability of the Toronto Police Service (TPS), and will follow up to make sure they are implemented, the release reads.

Ombudsman Toronto says it has already identified several areas that could benefit from its review, such as criminal records checks, the vulnerable persons registry, and programs designed to reach out to at-risk and marginalized communities.

The office says it will make the results of its investigations public to promote transparency and maintain public trust.

To avoid duplicating the work of existing oversight bodies, the release says, "Ombudsman Toronto will not investigate individual complaints about the Toronto Police Service (TPS), or how the TPS handles complaints."

It will also not review the conduct of individual officers and will focus instead on the systemic impacts of TPS procedures and programs to ensure they are fair to the people of Toronto, Opler said.

Deliver 'some substance,' former police board chair says

Alok Mukherjee, the chair of the Toronto Police Services Board from 2005 to 2015, believes there is an "urgent political reason" for the governing body of the police in the city and those who fund it — to do something like this.

He told CBC Toronto he's seen provincial reviews and inquiries come and go, but he's hopeful Ombudsman Toronto, an entity he describes as having a "high degree of credibility" and as being "independent of any political control," will spark change.

Alok Mukherjee, a former chair of the Toronto Police Services Board, hopes Opler will be able to 'deliver substance.'
Alok Mukherjee, a former chair of the Toronto Police Services Board, hopes Opler will be able to 'deliver substance.'(CBC)

But those changes have to stick, he warned.

"I have a great deal of respect for the ombudsman," Mukherjee said.

"I'd just like to make sure that the ombudsman's office does not become part of that elaborate illusion of accountability and delivers some substance."

Ombudsman will enhance transparency, city says

In a statement to CBC News Thursday night, the Toronto mayor's office said this additional oversight function will enhance accountability and transparency in policing and community safety.

"In order to do that successfully, we need an all-hands- on-deck approach. This new partnership with the Ombudsman will help us achieve these goals," said city spokesperson Lawvin Hadisi.

She said the decision builds on the landmark policing reforms the city spearheaded last summer, including the reform to establish an memorandum of understanding between the police board and the auditor general to conduct regular audits of the police service.

"The City along with Council have been hard at work moving forward with police reforms that aim to address the concerns and recommendations brought forward by residents, experts and stakeholders in regards to how we do policing in this city," Hadisi said.

The new police accountability process will be independent of the city, the police board and the force, per the ombudsman's mandate. The office will have full control and discretion over investigations, public reports and recommendations, the release says.

"Ombudsman Toronto's Memorandum of Understanding with the TPS Board and the TPS will clearly define its role and authority to carry out this oversight."

The office will be consulting with the public, including members of Black and Indigenous communities, to better understand their needs and concerns.