"Police complaints office gets some of what it wants: Now better-funded, grievances are coming in. But there are still credibility issues"
Staff Reporter (11 April, 2010)
Gerry McNeilly and a friend cooked up the idea of an African Canadian Legal Clinic in his Mississauga kitchen in 1991, and 15 years later he helped found a Manitoba clinic that provides legal advice for abused women.
But if you picture him in an activist role as head of the Office of the Independent Police Review Director – Ontario's new civilian-run system for overseeing public complaints about police conduct and policy – think again.
"We're not here to get anybody," McNeilly said in a recent interview. "We're independent, and we're going to continue to act independently, and we're not taking sides and we're not here to do that.
"My role will be very, very neutral. I'm going to carry out my job in an extremely collaborative and consultative way, with all of the stakeholders."
The agency officially opened up for business in October, and it's taking complaints online, at its Bay St. office and by mail and fax, provided the incident occurred after the new system kicked into place and is within its mandate to oversee.
As of mid-March, 1,011 complaints had been filed province-wide, slightly more than was expected, says McNeilly. About half were filed directly with the civilian agency, with the rest being passed on by police services.
People can still file complaints at any police station. Police must then pass them on to the civilian agency within three days, which then decides how to classify the complaint and makes a call on whether to assign a civilian investigator, ask that another police service investigate, or pass it back to the originating service for self-investigation.
Of the complaints received so far, 416 were screened out because they either predated the new system, were deemed to be frivolous or vexatious, were better dealt with elsewhere, or were duplicates, incomplete or not about police officers.
One in every six complaints that has been accepted – and deals with officer conduct – has been kept by the agency for investigation by one of its own civilian investigators.
The Independent Police Review Director's office has 45 staff and will top out at 50. This includes 10 civilian investigators with the power to get search warrants, summon witnesses and order police to hand over relevant documents.
Four of the 10 investigators are former police officers. "I needed the experience and skills to do a police investigation – and the know-how," says McNeilly, who was appointed director by the Lieutenant Governor.
The office also has the power to delve into systemic issues. "One area I'm looking at already," says McNeilly, "is that there is a fair amount of incivility, and it has a lot to do with traffic stops, and that may be an area where part of my role is to provide education and training."
The soft-launch of the office last October caused barely a media ripple. It came nearly five years after former Justice Patrick LeSage delivered to the Ontario government a blueprint for a more transparent and efficient system to replace one that instilled little public confidence and, perhaps more important, would be better funded than the Police Complaints Commission, mothballed in 1996 by the Mike Harris government.
McNeilly expects the annual budget will be about $9 million. That's more than the budget for Ontario's civilian Special Investigations Unit – which probes police incidents involving serious injury and death – and double that of the old Police Complaints Commission.
So far, the new office hasn't been as active as police leaders thought it would be. "Frankly, I was expecting more of an impact," says Toronto police Chief Bill Blair. "But I'm confident Mr. McNeilly sort of will get his legs and take more active involvement."
"It is still early," says Ron Bain, executive director of the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police. "And I think that we, and Mr. McNeilly, are still waiting to hear from people who are the harshest critics of the old system, as to whether the new system is in fact meeting their expectations."
McNeilly is indeed anxious to hear from those who were critical of the old system, the loudest of whom were fellow lawyers who had long advised clients not to even bother lodging a formal complaint.
Among them was Toronto lawyer Clayton Ruby. He has had no experience with the new system but so far sees nothing in the way it's set up that would change his mind. "It's always useless."
Many of LeSage's recommendations have been adopted into the new system, including the ability of a third party to file a complaint. "The floodgates haven't been opened," as some expected, says McNeilly. "It's just been a trickle."
Under the new system, police will continue to investigate the vast majority of complaints. The civilian agency will oversee decisions, has the power to review, and can take over an investigation. Police chiefs remain in charge of any discipline that is eventually meted out.
And police will continue to adjudicate police disciplinary hearings stemming from serious public complaints involving allegations of harassment, discrimination, breach of confidentiality, misconduct or conduct that might result in a criminal charge. This, despite an explicit recommendation by LeSage that a stable of independent, on-call adjudicators be developed for such occasions.
Spokespersons for the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services and the Attorney General, the ministries involved in policing and police oversight, confirmed no action has been taken on that front.
In a telephone interview, LeSage said he met and learned of many competent police officers who served as adjudicators during his consultations, but hopes the government follows through on the recommendation to enlist a cadre of independent adjudicators, if for no other reason but the optics. He suggests the Independent Police Review Director's office should be able to retain lawyers to serve when needed and serve as lone adjudicators or as part of a panel.
McNeilly hopes the new regime – geared toward better communication with complainants and timely investigation and resolution of complaints – will change minds and be seen as fair and impartial.
McNeilly, who is in his 50s and ran Legal Aid Manitoba for nine years, says other provinces are watching how the new Ontario complaints system will work.
"Nothing is etched in stone," he says, "so we can make changes to make it better if I have to."
Copyright (c) Toronto Star 2010