Something very rare occurred at Old City Hall last month: a Special Investigations Unit (SIU) charge made its way to court.
Detective Christopher Higgins took his seat at the defendant's table for allegedly inflicting "serious injury" on someone in police custody. This trial is one of only two cases that ended in charges being laid, out of 136 investigations conducted by the police watchdog last year.
Still, recently appointed director James Cornish, a former Crown attorney, is boasting of a new era of "renewal." For starters, he's promising to issue more complete press releases to inform the community about SIU decisions. "Hopefully, the people in the community who read them will, if not agree with me, at least understand why I got to that position."
Cornish says he wants to form better ties with various ethnic communities across Ontario. "I get a sense that not many people are familiar with us."
Some local human rights advocates and policing reformers who've seen the script Cornish is now reading from don't share his optimism.
Avvy Go, a lawyer at the Metro Toronto Chinese and Southeast Asian Legal Clinic, regularly receives complaints about police mistreatment and wrongful arrests. "I am concerned with the number of times the SIU decided that there's no basis to lay charges against police officers, particularly in cases of death as a result of police actions," she says.
Go thinks the legal requirements for laying charges against police are too high. She says the lack of accountability sends the wrong message to officers about the use of firearms.
"By saying officers have reasonable grounds to pull their weapons, we are constantly reinforcing their lack of training [on how to diffuse hostile situations] because at the end of the day it's OK that they killed somebody."
Former SIU director Howard Morton is not about to measure the SIU's effectiveness by the number of officers it charges. But he's also well aware that the public questions SIU objectivity. "Fairness is not the perception of the groups that have the most contact with police: the black community, other people of colour and young people," he says.
Cornish is philosophical about the public scrutiny. "You're never going to keep everybody happy, and if you do, there's probably something not right," he says. "Sometimes people's expectations don't match reality."
The judge Queen's Park commissioned to assess the SIU, George Adams, says police cooperation has improved significantly since the SIU's darkest days.
But in his most recent report (2003), Adams notes some persistent problems that weaken public confidence in the SIU's oversight of police conduct.
He points to police giving tardy interviews, witnesses and subject officers using the same lawyer, and the "very problematic" practice of police consulting lawyers before completing their notes.
In contrast, Cornish says the cops he's dealt with have not only been professional but genuinely helpful.
"The relationship between the SIU and the police has never been better. I say that because there are no arguments about our access to materials, our entitlement to scenes or whether we should be involved at all," he says. Cornish adds, "But the public shouldn't take from that that we've got too close a relationship."
Chief Julian Fantino's spokesperson, Mark Pugash, says he's been present on several occasions as the SIU investigated shooting incidents last year.
But the conducting of "parallel investigations" by police into police shootings does raise questions of interference with SIU probes, notes Morton.
Black Action Defence Committee director Dudley Laws says the SIU is toothless. "Some of the cases the SIU's had lately, it's totally bizarre how they cannot lay charges," says Laws. He's particularly upset by the police shooting death of O'Brien Christopher-Reid. Laws attended Christopher-Reid's funeral last month. "We're going back to the old days when the police were protected by the SIU and no one is being held accountable," Laws says.
He also questions the independence of SIU investigators, because many are ex-cops. "The (SIU) mindset is that police are not guilty of an offence; they are doing their duty. So they lean toward exonerating the police even before they consider the circumstances of the case," Laws says.
Adds defence lawyer Peter Rosenthal, "Police have done an effective job of intimidating the SIU and making it overly cautious about laying charges."
Rosenthal supports broadening the unit's mandate so it can recommend disciplinary action against officers in cases where their actions don't merit a criminal charge.
The SIU has a "resource committee" that includes reps from the Urban Alliance on Race Relations, Avvy Go, Bromley Armstrong of the Jamaican Canadian Association and lawyer Julian Falconer. Members meet twice a year.
At these meetings Urban Alliance president Zanana Akande gets frustrated at how much time is wasted debating protocol. She wants Cornish to better inform the public about the SIU's mandate and cases, but also to create "a vehicle to inform those responsible at the SIU how the public views its decisions. Presently, it's obviously a one-way street regarding communication," she says.
Says Cornish, "In the long run, I'd like the SIU to reflect the mosaic of those we serve." In the meantime, critics will be watching to see if those SIU charges against Higgins stick.