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Safer Ontario Act is a foundation to rebuild trust in law enforcement

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November 9, 2017

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Renu Mandhane, Chief Commissioner, Ontario Human Rights Commission

In conversations about criminal justice reform, it has become cliché for leaders to conclude that sustainable solutions lie in “rebuilding trust.” And for good reason. A September 2017 poll found that six in 10 Torontonians would “be scared” if they were “pulled over by a police officer for no apparent reason.” When speaking to the introduction of the Safer Ontario Act, Attorney General Yasir Naqvi said the legislation will rebuild trust. But will it?

Trust in law enforcement is essential because there is a clear link between public confidence in policing and safety. People are less likely to cooperate with police investigations and provide testimony in court if they have negative perceptions of police. These principles go back nearly 200 years to Sir Robert Peel, the father of modern policing. It’s simple: without trust, police cannot provide proactive, intelligence-based policing, and this has profound consequences for our justice system.

Trust in police is especially fractured among groups protected under Ontario’s Human Rights Code, because they bear the brunt of the system’s negative consequences. The prison population provides a snapshot: Indigenous and Black people are grossly over-represented, and the number of prisoners with addictions, and mental health and intellectual disabilities has grown dramatically in recent years. The impact of the criminal justice system is felt at an individual, family and community level and can have inter-generational impacts on well-being. Not that any of this is new. Expressions of concern are commonplace, from politicians and judges, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, to the United Nations.  

Can the concept of trust that we easily understand in our personal relationships inform rebuilding trust with public institutions? What does trust mean in the context of policing?

The Oxford English dictionary defines trust as a “firm belief in the reliability, truth, or ability of someone or something.” “Firm belief” highlights that trust in police services and oversight agencies must be durable, transcending changes in leadership and capable of withstanding disagreements. “Reliability” requires police organizations to deliver on their promises, not succumb to pressures that come in times of crisis or change, represent our full diversity, and be transparent and accountable to the public.

“Truth” requires police services and oversight bodies to explore all viewpoints, engage in evidence-based policy informed by both qualitative and quantitative data (including lived experience), and remain independent in the face of pressures from multiple stakeholders. Finally, “ability” requires police services and oversight bodies to demonstrate competence and efficiency, deliver police services in a non-discriminatory way, and create tailored approaches that address the needs of the most marginalized and vulnerable people in the local community.

With this definition in mind, the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) supports introduction of the Safer Ontario Act. This legislation embodies many of the principles underlying the definition of “trust.”

The Safer Ontario Act will make compliance with the Charter and Code a defining principle of policing. It will require regular diversity training, community engagement and greater representation of historically marginalized groups. It will clarify the role of police boards, and increase the transparency, independence and authority of police oversight bodies. Finally, in the spirit of reconciliation, it recognizes the unique history, experiences and needs of First Nations communities. 

If passed, the Safer Ontario Act, along with regulations mandating demographic data collection under the Anti-Racism Act, will transform the legal foundation of policing in Ontario. It will send a strong signal that change is required to rebuild trust with the communities most affected by criminalization – Black and Indigenous communities, and people living with mental health disabilities and addictions.

More fundamentally, the Safer Ontario Act shows that when government works closely with communities and stakeholders to develop legislative reforms, it can create a solid foundation to rebuild trust in public institutions.

The legislation is a first step. The OHRC will continue to push police services and oversight agencies to take additional steps to end racial profiling, address stereotyping in sexual assault investigations, and stop disproportional use of force on people with mental health disabilities. We must follow the government’s lead and work hard to make the new vision for policing set out in the Safer Ontario Act a reality. This is the only way to rebuild and sustain trust and make our communities safer.

Read article in the Huffington Post (09/11/2017)