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Add more bite to police watchdog mandate: Zita

The Ontario Special Investigations Unit (SIU) needs to be more transparent in order to gain and maintain public trust, Toronto criminal lawyer Jessica Zita tells AdvocateDaily.com.

The SIU is a civilian agency investigating incidents involving police where there has been death, injury or sexual assault allegations, says Zita, an associate with Hicks Adams LLP.

“The SIU would do well to communicate more with the community about their work,” she says.

“I understand they can’t reveal everything about their investigations due to safety and public interest concerns, but revealing what information they can would be a step toward more transparency.”

Zita says the police watchdog also needs to be more independent.

“Using boilerplate language to tell the public they’ve taken over an investigation, often leaves it unclear as to where the police work ends and where the SIU takes over,” she says.

Zita believes the former Liberal government’s planned Ontario Special Investigations Unit Act, which was part of an overhaul of policing, could have led to more transparency and independence.

However, the Progressive Conservatives announced the postponement of the implementation of the Act last summer, she says.

Zita explains that the SIU Act was part of a set of reforms aimed at improving accountability and would have given the unit greater power.

“This would have been helpful and would have addressed the issue of more independence for the SIU to conduct investigations,” she says.

“If the work of the SIU was also more transparent, it would make the community feel there is nothing to hide.”

Zita says one part of the legislation would have given the SIU the ability to penalize officers who did not co-operate with its investigations.

A Toronto Star report about a recent SIU probe highlights the frustration many people feel, she says.

The SIU’s investigation into an alleged police assault ended without any charges — despite the fact a man being arrested suffered a broken nose after allegedly being kicked in the face — because investigators couldn’t identify the officer involved, Zita says.

“Under s. 113 of the Police Services Act, officers must co-operate with the SIU,” Zita says.

“The government really needs to think about what message it is communicating about police accountability.”

She says because the PSA is the same one that mandates police, it can be difficult for the public to see the independence of the SIU.

“We need to know more about what our police watchdog is doing. As a criminal defence lawyer, I am somewhat wary of the way investigations are conducted.”

Zita says much of the work police officers do needs to be commended, but when an investigation of an officer is necessary, it must be thorough and independent.

She would also like to see the SIU continue to investigate any deaths in which the administering of naloxone by officers is unsuccessful.

Zita says the unit recently announced it would no longer conduct probes around police administration of the drug, which is used to counteract the effects of an opioid overdose.

“I don’t think they should cherry-pick when they investigate. Even though police were doing their best to help, there was a death. A reviewing body should still come in and determine that everything that could have been done to help this person was done,” she says.

“Just because someone died by taking fentanyl, we still deserve to know exactly what happened.”

Zita believes, like many professions, all police work should be reviewable.

"As a lawyer, we are reviewed by the Ontario Law Society, why should the police be under different standards?”

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