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Public should be told how and why a police officer kills someone

Is it not blindingly obvious that when a police officer kills someone, the public should know the details? Apparently not.
April 10, 2017
By Edward Keenan

How obviously sensible is this? If a police officer kills someone, the public should be told how and why.

Well, it is apparently a conclusion so obvious that to reach it in Ontario took a massive public outcry (and a daily newspaper campaign for transparency), which created a crisis, which led to a seven-month study involving 17 public consultations, 1,500 interviews and 130 private meetings.

When it comes to police accountability around here, nothing, apparently, is self-evident.

Even the most rudimentary principles of public trust and openness escape those who most need to understand them.

So yes, the recommendation of Justice Michael Tulloch’s Independent Police Oversight Review that says reports of investigations into incidents where police kill or seriously injure someone should be public information is as welcome as it is overdue.

But that we need a judge to conduct a massive study to convince the authorities to serve their own best interests, and the interests of justice, by doing the most obvious thing, is depressing.

“Modern policing, after all, is founded on public trust,” Justice Tulloch wrote in the introduction to his report.

“For the public to have confidence in policing and police oversight, justice must not only be done, but also be seen to be done.”

These are not difficult concepts to understand.

If the public has no faith in the police force, then the force cannot properly serve and protect them.

A public that mistrusts the police lives in fear. They refuse to co-operate. They do not share information. And sometimes, they will take the administration of justice, as they see it, into their own hands.

The police require public trust. And the public requires police they can trust.

This is basic stuff.

And yet, for years, both our police forces and the agencies we have set up to hold them accountable, have operated under an absurd veil of secrecy. Even the most basic information about how police have conducted their jobs has been kept confidential. When the Special Investigations Unit that probes cases where police officers have killed someone in the line of duty has decided no charges are warranted, the report on the details of its investigation and the evidence that led to its conclusions has been treated as a matter of high secrecy, read only by the Attorney General.

That state of affairs is absurd.

And reflective of a culture that mistrusts the public so much that it believes it cannot handle the truth.

We’re talking about information that, taken at face value, would be exculpatory. Information that would be, if these agencies are doing their jobs, helpful in instilling public trust in police actions. Information that would provide evidence and explanations of how officers are justified in the things they do.

And yet this is the very information that has been kept secret.

It is indicative of a culture that sees itself as above answering to the public.

One that sees the public as an enemy.

One that sees secrecy as an end in itself.

There are lots of other recommendations in the report. Sensible ones. Professionalizing police culture, holding automatic inquests into killings by police, giving broader powers to the SIU and making it truly independent, expanding the Office of the Independent Police Review Director (and changing its name to something understandable by speakers of plain English). Many of them have been reported in these pages in the past few days. Some of them can be implemented more quickly and easily than others. They are, to my eye, all worthy tasks.

And yet the most basic one, to me, is that reports on SIU investigations should be made public.

It’s great that the Attorney General has said he will implement this one right away (and do so retroactively, to boot).

But that this needed to be included in the report is a hint to me at the difficulties ahead in implementing all of Tulloch’s recommendations.

A provincial government and policing culture that needs to be told such a thing is one that has not yet shown itself to understand that it reports to the public, and that it needs to foster public trust, or that it understands how to do so.

Tulloch has laid out a blueprint for making big gains towards a police oversight culture that is actually transparent and accountable. Following it could be the beginning of restoring the public trust that has famously deteriorated in recent years. “The million dollar question,” as former SIU director and provincial ombudsman AndrĂ© Marin says, “is whether the government will act on the report.”

“Our work begins today,” Attorney General Yasir Naqvi said, on receiving it.

It sure does.

And let us hope that work does not drag on too long.

The blueprint for shoring up public trust in police is here.

If Naqvi and his government understand what it says, it’s time for them to start proving it.