Embrace video, outgoing head of Special Investigations Unit urges police

MISSISSAUGA, Ont. – The meteoric rise of video in social media has become a game changer that police should embrace rather than resist, says the outgoing head of the Ontario agency that investigates cops for potential criminal wrongdoing.

Reflecting on his five years as director of the Special Investigations Unit, Ian Scott says video has had a huge impact, and police should be looking at expanding its use.

“This is imagery that the police can have no control over. They bring the issue of police use of force in high focus for the public,” Scott says.

“My view is they should be embracing the concept of video imagery.”

Scott, 61, who leaves the SIU post this month, says he would like to see officers wear “lapelcams” to record interactions with the public.

He is especially keen to see all police stun guns equipped with “Tasercams” that record video and audio when the weapon is readied for firing.

“I can’t think of a better device to guarantee that Tasers are being used appropriately,” Scott says.

“For $400, this is the deal of the century because they’re going to solve a million hours of investigations.”

Examples of where video has played a critical role are the notorious RCMP Tasering of Robert Dziekanski at the Vancouver airport in 2007, and, more recently, the police shooting of Sammy Yatim on a streetcar in Toronto.

In the aftermath of the Yatim killing — an officer faces a rare charge of second-degree murder — the province altered regulations to allow all front-line officers to carry stun guns.

Scott came to the job amid widespread concern — most notably from the provincial ombudsman — that the SIU was toothless when it came to holding rogue officers to criminal account.

The former Crown and defence lawyer concedes that prosecuting police is difficult.

“They have access to very good lawyers and lots of money for their defence.”

During his tenure, Scott has laid 57 charges. Twenty-one cases are currently before the courts. Of the 36 others, 14 resulted in convictions.

Overall, about four per cent of cases the agency investigates lead to charges. It’s a percentage Scott says doesn’t worry him because he’s confident he has thoroughly reviewed the rest of the files.

He’s laid charges in only three fatality cases. In one, an officer was convicted and is serving a two-year sentence. The other two, one in which an officer shot a man in the back and the other involving the Yatim shooting, are working their way through the criminal justice system.

Police are required to call in the SIU when police action results in death or serious injury. There’s not much to quibble about when someone dies, but the concept of “serious injury” remains a thorny one.

Ultimately, he says the legislature should come up with a definition that would be used province wide.

“I’ve tried to push this issue,” he says, noting cases where someone is badly hurt is the SIU’s “biggest growth area” and account for about 50 per cent of its probes.

Scott also admits to having had little success in his push to have the SIU report directly to the legislature, as do the province’s ombudsman and privacy commissioner, instead of to the Ministry of the Attorney General.

The ministry blocked his first annual report, which raised issues with police compliance with legislation.

“Basically, I was just getting stonewalled, I couldn’t get my report out,” he says.

“That shouldn’t have happened. If the SIU was directly accountable to the legislature, that would not have happened.”

Scott believes he has had one pivotal success in raising the question of whether officers involved in SIU probes should be allowed to consult a single lawyer to vet their notes before turning them over to investigators.

The case is currently before the Supreme Court of Canada.

Scott has also publicly complained about the lack of co-operation from police services — most notably in Toronto — who have refused to respond to dozens of letters in which he raised issues about compliance with the legislation.

He calls it an attempt at a dialogue aimed at resolving problems, but all too often the response has been deafening silence.

“Nobody’s getting invited to a tea party. We are doing criminal investigations of on-duty police officers,” Scott says.

“There’s always going to be tension.”

Still, some police services, such as those in Ottawa, Windsor and the Ontario Provincial Police, have become more responsive, he says. Others have not, although Toronto’s Bill Blair has recently said he wants to a better relationship with Scott’s successor, Crown attorney Tony Loparco.

As he leans back in his office chair at SIU headquarters, Scott says he believes he has successfully raised the profile of the SIU and helped increase the transparency of the agency.

Ultimately, he says, it all comes down to public confidence in their police and in the civilian oversight of a group of people society has entrusted with a mandate to use lethal force.

“We’re the ultimate check and balance,” he says. “We are kind of the police of last resort.”

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