Published March 13, 2024

Overhaul of Ontario police law set to take effect five years after act passed

By Allison Jones

An overhaul of Ontario's 34-year-old law governing policing in the province is set to take effect next month, with its rules and regulations covering everything from oversight to discipline to more easily allowing the suspension of officers without pay.

The Community Safety and Policing Act now has an implementation date of April 1, a full five years after it was passed, following a lengthy process involving more than 30 meetings with municipalities, advocates and police services and the filing of more than two dozen regulations to accompany the law.

The new act is huge, with a whopping 263 sections — more than 100 sections longer than the law it replaces — but new rules allowing police chiefs to suspend officers without pay in some circumstances are among those likely to garner the most public attention.

Under the old Police Services Act, the only circumstance in which a police officer wouldn't get paid while suspended is if they were both convicted of an offence and sentenced to imprisonment.

An officer who was convicted of a crime but didn't have to serve time behind bars would remain suspended with pay unless and until they were fired through police disciplinary procedure. If the officer appealed their termination, they could remain suspended for months, even years.

The Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police has long advocated for more powers to suspend officers without pay. The new rules mark progress, said spokesperson Joe Couto, but may not go far enough when it comes to public confidence in the system, particularly since new rules largely only cover off-duty incidents.

"We might be a little further ahead, but not really, I think, what the public expects from their lawmakers," he said.

The new law goes beyond earlier rules – chiefs can suspend without pay if an officer is in custody or on bail with conditions that would interfere with their ability to do their job, or if the officer is charged with a serious off-duty offence that could also lead to their firing.

Police unions have expressed concerns about broadening provisions for suspension without pay, noting that unless an officer has been convicted, they are entitled to a presumption of innocence. But Mark Baxter, president of the Police Association of Ontario, said he believes the new rules strike a good balance.

"When we have some really serious and horrific cases that involve allegations that involve police officers, we understand the public's expectation that the member is not going to continue to be on the payroll," he said in an interview.

It's unclear if an officer could recover lost wages if they are ultimately acquitted, Baxter said.

There are big changes when it comes to the police discipline process, too. Currently, a police chief appoints an investigator to probe alleged misconduct, hires the prosecutor and hires the adjudicator, Baxter said.

"It really feels like the deck is stacked against a member from the beginning," he said. 

The new law creates an arm's-length, independent body to conduct adjudication hearings.

It also creates the position of inspector general, who will be appointed to inspect and monitor how police services, police boards and chiefs are complying with the new law, as well as investigate alleged misconduct by police service board members. 

The inspector general will also have the power to require a police service to be overseen by another entity, and to remove people from leadership positions. 

The Ontario Human Rights Commission said the creation of the inspector general position is positive, as are the broadened ability to suspend officers without pay and provisions around gaps in oversight.

The commission said it is also encouraging that under the law municipalities developing community safety and well-being plans must consult with members of the public, including youth, people who have received or are receiving mental health or addictions services, members of racialized groups and First Nation, Inuit and Métis people.

However, the human rights commission said not all of its suggestions were incorporated in the law.

"For example, its recommendations that the equipment and use of force regulation include tighter standards for the use of conducted energy weapons (Tasers) and that the adequate and effective policing regulation encourage the use of non-police response options to persons who are in crisis," the commission wrote in a statement.

The law and its accompanying regulations set out minimum standards for "adequate and effective policing" in areas such as crime prevention and maintaining the public peace. 

Another important regulation with the law, Baxter noted, is one specifying what equipment front-line officers should have access to in case they respond to an active attacker situation, including heavier body armour, a battering ram and a "reasonable number" of semi-automatic rifles, which will vary between communities.

"The act really sort of modernizes police workplaces," Baxter said. "There's some components that are going to make our workplaces safer for our members."

Municipalities, which largely pay policing costs, say they are keeping an eye on what the law will mean for their budgets, but that the changes are good overall.

"(The Association of Municipalities of Ontario) has encouraged the Ontario government to understand the financial impacts as Ontarians already pay some of the highest per capita policing costs in the country," AMO president Colin Best wrote in a statement.

"The proposed reforms ... are important, overdue and will provide a more consistent level of safety across the province for both the public and our front-line officers."

The Information and Privacy Commissioner's office said there are many worthwhile measures in the new law, including on transparency and accountability of police services boards, but it doesn't provide for enough transparency in making new regulations. 

"There is also heightened public interest in enhanced transparency and accountability when it comes to both the governance of police powers and addressing systemic discrimination associated with policing," it wrote in a statement.

"Additional measures are also needed to ensure that police review and purge records that reflect or may facilitate excessive, discriminatory, or unlawful police practices."

The law has been in the works for a long time. 

The former Liberal government consulted on policing law changes for years before passing the Safer Ontario Act shortly before the 2018 election but when Premier Doug Ford's government won power, it paused the implementation of that act, decrying it as anti-police. 

Ford's government then brought in its own law in 2019 but has said the size of the bill and the regulations needed to accompany it, as well as delays in that work brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, slowed the implementation of the bill.

There will still be much work to do after seeing how the new rules and regulations actually affect policing, said Couto, of the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police.

"Our message to the government has been very clear that April 1 is not the end," he said. "It's actually the beginning, because three months, six months, eight months, 12 months down the road, we're going to have to come back together and say, 'Hey, we need to address this.'"

Banner image: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ethan Cairns

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 13, 2024.

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