12/14/2011 11:00 EST | Updated 02/13/2012 05:12 EST

Ontario Police: Watchdog Says Government 'Actively Undermined' Watchdog

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TORONTO - Ontario's governing Liberals won't commit to strengthening the province's independent police watchdog through legislation despite a new ombudsman report that found government officials "actively undermined" the Special Investigations Unit.

Attorney General John Gerretsen promised to take a "fresh look" at Andre Marin's second report on the SIU, but wouldn't say whether he would follow through on the ombudsman's call to create a law to give the civilian body some teeth.

"Only time will tell, I suppose," he said.

"I am committed to take a fresh look at it. ... We've already taken some action and we'll be taking further action in the future, no doubt."

But families whose loved ones were killed by police say they're angry that they've had to spend their life savings to get the answers they need through the courts, instead of the SIU.

"I feel absolutely furious with the Ministry of the Attorney General," said Ruth Schaeffer, whose 30-year-old son Levi was shot to death by Ontario Provincial Police in 2009.

It's the government's job to make sure police comply with SIU investigations, yet families like hers have gone broke trying to hold them accountable, she said.

"I pay my tax money, I'm sure that pays the people who work in the Ministry of the Attorney General," she said.

"Unfortunately, I've also spent my entire life savings during this process, which I would not go back on," she added.

"I have grandchildren who have to grow up in this province and I would feel terrible if I felt that I had done nothing to stop something which looks as though it's becoming somewhat fascist in nature."

Marin said he hopes the Liberals don't continue to undermine public confidence in policing by ignoring his call for legislation to strengthen the SIU, whose legal foundation is "embarrassingly flimsy."

After he issued his first report on the SIU in 2008, the government said it welcomed his recommendations, he said.

But his latest investigation found the ministry had no intention of enacting legislation due to "vehement police opposition," he said.

"In many ways, I think the government is hoping for a magical consensus to emerge, and it just won't happen," Marin said.

"The animosity between the SIU and the police is palpable and at an all-time high. I think police are running roughshod over the SIU."

The SIU has made "considerable progress" since his 2008 report, but many of its efforts to improve oversight have been thwarted by both the government and police, Marin said.

Over the last three years, SIU director Ian Scott sent 227 letters to police chiefs about failing to notify or co-operate with its investigations, but received only 20 "substantive" replies, Marin said.

Scott has also endured "searing" attacks from police chiefs and police unions, he added.

"I've seen nothing else than diligent work on his part, yet he's characterized in police circles as acting in a rogue fashion," he said. "He's continually demonized and vilified."

Government officials "systematically" discouraged Scott from speaking out about unco-operative police officers and dismissed concerns about the vetting of police notes by lawyers, even though Ontario's top court condemned the practice, he said.

The Ministry of the Attorney General also suppressed an internal SIU report that raised similar concerns, which Marin called "disturbing."

Gerretsen said the report was kept under wraps so that former chief justice Patrick LaSage — who was asked to make recommendations to the government — could do his work.

LeSage conducted confidential consultations with police officials and the SIU in late 2009 and issued recommendations last April, three of which were implemented by the ministry in August.

However, "many major issues" still aren't addressed and there needs to be "comprehensive legislative reform" to ensure accountability of police oversight, Marin added.

Strengthening the SIU will help rebuild public confidence in the police, which has been hurt by incidents like the mass arrests during the G20 protests in Toronto last year, said NDP critic Jagmeet Singh.

There's nothing stopping the Liberals from getting any SIU legislation through Ontario's minority parliament, because the NDP would gladly support it, he said.

"Having a strong independent body protecting the rights of Ontarians actually ... improves (the police's) reputation as well," he said.

"So it's crucial that we have something in place that really gives the SIU the tools to do their job."

The SIU was created in 1990 to investigate cases where police are involved in the serious injury or death of civilians.