WINDSOR — Students at the University of Windsor’s law school are fanning out across southwestern Ontario in a bid to boost the province’s new police complaints process.
Through the new Law Enforcement Accountability Project, those involved aim to aggressively promote the public’s right to bring forward complaints of unethical or abusive police conduct.
The project, headed by professor David Tanovich, seeks to not only get the word out about a new provincial police complaints process; it also aims to help people file their cases with the new arms-length body, the Office of the Independent Police Review Director, that investigates public complaints.
Working on a $50,000 grant from the Law Foundation of Ontario, and with as many as 50 students signed up as pro bono staff, the project involves giving presentations at community centres and meeting with local law enforcement agencies to talk up what has been described as breakthrough legislation that provides more objective and transparent oversight into police complaints.
“I think this is an excellent way to try and make the [complaints] system move forward in a non-adversarial way,” Tanovich says.
For years, the public has had the right to make complaints about treatment by police. But that meant walking into a police station and filling out a complaint form. Officers then did their own investigation. Consequently, results sometimes received a dubious reception because of a perceived bias by police investigating themselves. Even though there was an appeal process at the provincial level, police still handled the intake role and had vast control over the entire investigation.
With the new office, which the government established last fall, the system is “no longer controlled by the police,” Tanovich says.
Instead, members of the public now apply directly to the new office either through its web site or through forms available at ServiceOntario kiosks, police stations, community centres, and legal aid clinics.
The office determines who conducts the investigation, whether it does so itself or whether the police service in question or another police department takes on the case. But while it says police will still handle the majority of cases, Tanovich notes the key difference with the new system is that “there will be oversight, there will be the ability to review a decision about whether or not it’s a serious matter.”
In his opinion, it was a crucial breakthrough to move the intake process out of police hands since people will no longer face a possibly intimidating encounter at the detachment. Also, he says, “I think serious matters will be investigated by [the office].”
Where Tanovich’s students and the project come in is in helping facilitate this process. Students, who have received training from the office, now assist people in understanding the process and filling out complaint forms.
“So obviously, I think it’s fair to say that their complaints will be more focused and hopefully will contain more information than might have otherwise been the case if they had just filed online,” he says, adding there will be no attempt to lead clients or influence what they write. “We’re not doing any investigations; we’re not representing complainants.”
With police services also having signed on to the new system, Tanovich thinks skepticism about the results of internal investigations will get serious consideration. “If [the office] says, ‘Look here, I think there are reasonable grounds for misconduct,’ I think the police chief will take that very seriously.”
In the meantime, while the project will be integral to law students’ training, their participation isn’t for credit. Since Windsor’s law school puts a priority on experiential learning, having students meet with complainants and deal with the types of socio-economic pressures they face will provide an understanding of how the law works or doesn’t work for the public. It will also help them develop interviewing skills while increasing confidence and professionalism, according to Tanovich.
For third-year Windsor student Natasha Carew, the project fits perfectly with the school’s access-to-justice philosophy. “I’ve become constantly aware of various issues people have had with the police just from them telling me their stories,” she says.
But not everyone has full confidence in the new complaints process.
Frank Miller, who heads the local branch of the Criminal Lawyers’ Association, says that while attempts to improve the system are valid, he remains skeptical, especially since police will still investigate the vast majority of complaints. “It’s inconceivable that someone would be completely able to eliminate the possibility of any institutional bias. The province doesn’t seem to want to bankroll any kind of large-scale independent investigator.
And the police don’t seem to be interested in having anything of that nature around.”
Nevertheless, civil litigator Andrew Murray of Lerners LLP in London, Ont., thinks raising the profile of police complaints may be analogous to the breakthroughs in challenging other formerly secretive organizations like religious or athletic groups in sexual abuse cases.
“There was a time when people would not make complaints against the Catholic church,” says Murray, who is currently representing two Windsor police officers. “And there’s now been a series of high-profile civil litigation actions that seem to have brought all kinds of things out of the woodwork. And I think it has a lot to do with the lid being lifted off.”