Many words have been used todescribe Peter Tinsley, director of the police watchdog special investigations unit (SIU). Methodical. Low-key. By-the-book. A crashing disappointment. It's true the former military man appointed by the Tories to add gravitas to the post arrived on the scene with some honking expectations on his shoulders. He was going to professionalize the besieged unit, build its public credibility, cool out the endless beefs from the cops and build the trust of minority communities.
The Tories made sure he was given the tools for the job. They loaded his office with an impressive $5-million-plus budget, 72 investigators, forensics labs and computer-equipped vans. All the bells and whistles.
But 513 probes later -- including nine firearms deaths, 25 firearms injuries, 58 custody deaths, 210 custody injuries and 36 sexual assaults -- astoundingly, charges have been laid in a mere 14 cases.
While raw numbers are not necessarily the measure of an SIU director, they are nevertheless disconcerting to those who believe it's the SIU's job to be a counterweight to the tremendous licence and lethal power afforded law enforcers.
Tinsley defends his record this way: "I would describe my approach as "Be respectful of the law,'' he tells me. "The law is pretty clear. You don't charge unless you have a reasonable belief.' What constitutes "reasonable' has, of course, long been a matter of furious controversy.
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For T.O. cops who have never quite been able to accept the existence of the SIU, its digs in an industrial park off Hwy 427 in sleepy Mississauga are exactly where they should be -- out of sight and out of mind.
On this Thursday morning, I'm ushered not into Tinsley's office but into an impersonal boardroom. He emerges on cue through a back door and greets me with a half-smile and a more timid handshake than one would expect from an armed forces man.
I'm here to ask about his decision in the case involving John Menga, a 29-year-old father of two shot by police in February. Tinsley ruled in that case that Paul Lentsch and Bobby Grewal were "legally justified" in shooting Menga -- seven times in all. Tinsley found that Menga, who was fleeing police in a stolen jeep, was operating the vehicle "in a threatening fashion with total disregard for considerations of safety, posing a very real threat" to the officers. But questions remain for the Menga family.
Chief among them, says their lawyer, Julian Falconer, is whether firing their weapons was the only alternative left to the officers. Falconer says Menga was not driving in a threatening manner at all. The jeep was travelling at a slow speed -- 11 kilometres an hour, in fact. The Menga family is weighing its legal options.
Making this case even touchier for Tinsley is the fact that Falconer, a respected voice in policing reform circles and a supporter of the SIU head, is also a member of a committee set up recently by Tinsley to advise the SIU on policing issues of concern to the community.
This morning Tinsley is eager to put any questions about the case to rest. Evidence boards with colour photos of the night in question are propped against a wall in the boardroom. Detailed diagrams of the scene, complete with symbols showing where bullet casings were found, are pulled from the file for my perusal.
It's the positions of the bullet casings that give me pause. Looking at those positions, it seem that one of the officers was standing behind Menga when he unloaded.
"We make every attempt to demonstrate the care that's taken in the investigative process,' Tinsley says, carefully gauging my reaction.
I can see why some say they're never really sure where his loyalties lie; perhaps that's what walking the line is all about. Observers note that he's quick to praise police in his press releases when they're cleared of wrongdoing.
Listening to him pump the new and improved SIU, it's difficult at times to avoid the whiff of a sell job. He is, after all, an appointment of the Tories -- the same government that gutted the public complaints system, stood by while the Toronto Police Association went on its True Blue rampage, and stacked the upper ranks of the solicitor general's ministry with cop-friendly bureaucrats.
All of which wouldn't necessarily reflect badly on him if it weren't for that segment on the current affairs show Fifth Estate a couple of years back that suggested he was pressured by his bosses at Queen's Park, in one case at least, to clear a 51 Division officer involved in a shooting incident.
"There were no phone calls. There was no backroom deal,' Tinsley says firmly.
But police certainly won more than a few concessions when lawyer George Adams was dispatched by the Tories in 99 to examine the workings of the SIU. Nothing was done to rectify the legal provisions that have always entangled the SIU. Subject officers, the target of SIU investigations, still have the right to remain silent in probes.
About 40 per cent of cases are still not closed by the SIU within its 30-day target. And jousting between the police and the unit at the scene of incidents continues. Police still leak details to back their side of the story to the media. The turning over of police witnesses to the SIU for questioning is not always timely.
Toronto Police Association president Craig Bromell offers the requisite we-believe-in-civilian-oversight spiel, but it's a little hard to believe him when he adds in the next breath that "we should have cops" doing the investigations.
So what has changed fundamentally in the rejigged SIU? Policing critics say not much.
"The director of the SIU is not supposed to be defence counsel for cops," says lawyer Peter Rosenthal. "They're supposed to work cases from the prosecutorial point of view. If you have a director taking a timid approach, you end up not performing your function, in my view."
Avvy Go, a lawyer with the Metro Toronto Chinese and South East Asian Legal Clinic, who's also a member of Tinsley's advisory committee, says, "As long as the laws aren't changed, the line of accountability isn't either. From the record, it's clear that the SIU often err on the side of caution. That's an understatement." email@example.com