How can you trust cops to investigate cops?
That’s one of the key questions emerging in the aftermath of a violent beating allegedly perpetrated by a police officer and his brother that could cause a black teenager to lose an eye. Now, allegations of a police cover up are even wider, with the lawyer for the victim accusing the father of the accused — who is himself detective on the Toronto police service — of interfering with the investigation and providing false information.
It was the early morning hours of Dec. 28, 2016, when off-duty Toronto police officer Michael Theriault and his brother Christian came upon 19-year-old Dafonte Miller and his friends on a residential street in Whitby, Ont.
Whatever occurred, Miller was sent to hospital with injuries — he is now permanently blind in his left eye as a result of that night, has reduced vision in his right eye, suffered broken and fractured bones, bruised ribs and “severe psychological and emotional distress.” He was arrested on five charges, including assault with a weapon.
“Despite the clear evidence that he was a victim.”
Those charges were later dropped. In his complaint against the police, Miller alleges that Theriault and his brother chased and beat him with a steel pipe.
It’s what happened after — that neither force reported the incident to the Ontario police watchdog, which only came to learn of it from Miller’s lawyer five months later — that has cast an even more glaring light on the entire episode.
Yesterday, Miller’s lawyer Julian Falconer filed a 20-page complaint with the Office of the Independent Police Review Director formally accusing Durham and Toronto police services of covering up the alleged crime. The complaint alleges police failed to interview eyewitnesses, insufficiently questioned the Theriault brothers’ recounts of the supposed attack, failing to investigate the cause of Miller’s injuries and for initially arresting and charging Miller “despite the clear evidence that he was a victim.”
There’s more: the document accuses John Theriault, the brothers’ father who is a detective with the Toronto Police Service Professional Standards Unit, of communicating with Durham police investigators and aiding to conceal facts to protect his sons.
The departments’ failure to report the incident to the Special Investigations Unit (SIU) is being seen as a coverup as well, and while the SIU’s ongoing investigation should bring answers to these questions, instead, the unit’s efficacy is being questioned, too.
Toronto city councillor and Toronto Police Service Board member Shelley Carroll told VICE News that she believes this case is “leading pretty obviously to [racial] profiling,” and that the investigations currently taking place are just the beginning.
“It’s not just the court trial for the Theriault brothers,” she said of the accused. “It’s: ‘What the hell is wrong with policing in the system that we’re working now?’”
Provincial regulation says that with any SIU-investigated incident, a report called a Section 11 — an internal review by the department into the policies and events surrounding an incident — must be published within 30 days of receiving the SIU’s case findings. The report is most
“I don’t trust any police officers investigating other police officers on principle, because they cover for each other.”
In Toronto, the Police Services Board enlisted Waterloo Regional Police Service to conduct the Section 11 to deal with the case’s “controversial” nature.”
Durham, however, elected to keep its review internal.
That decision surprised Carroll.
Waterloo police are themselves facing their own controversy, in the form of a lawsuit alleging systemic and institutional gender discrimination and harassment.
Observers have long viewed the practice of police investigating police as inherently compromised by the loyalty police could possess toward their peers. A 2014 report from the federal government outlines some of those arguments, saying police cannot provide “adequate and impartial” reviews of their own misconduct, or rationalization of misconduct for the sake of their reputation.
“This idea that the way you get transparency in a police investigation is you have an outside police force do it — well, the Durham police protected a member of the Toronto police,” activist and journalist Desmond Cole alleged in an interview with VICE News. “So I don’t trust any police officers investigating other police officers on principle, because they cover for each other.”
“What is the point of extending public moneys on an investigation and a report that will have little or no credibility?”
According to an Ontario Ombudsman report, between 2008 and 2011, 50 incidents that should have been investigated by the SIU went unreported by police.
Carroll says if the Toronto police believe the SIU’s findings are insufficient, it is “entirely possible” that they could go “beyond that” and order a public inquiry.
Cole found that assertion incredulous.
“She wants me and the community to believe that if the SIU doesn’t find evidence that dozens of police officers covered up a crime by another police officer, that they’ll investigate themselves? For a crime they intentionally covered up to begin with?”
Cole and Carroll disagree on whether Canadians can trust the system. Carroll said her frustration lies in “the activist community’s” unwillingness “to be honest about the necessity of going through the legal steps” for systemic improvement in the system.
But Falconer said on the Section 11s: “You have to ask yourself, what is the point of extending public moneys on an investigation and a report that will have little or no credibility?”
“Plagued by serious problems that compromised its ability to carry out its mandate.”
The SIU has faced scrutiny as well. In 2008, then-Ontario Ombudsman and former SIU director Andre Marin reported the unit was “plagued by serious problems that compromised its ability to carry out its mandate.” In a later report Marin highlighted two public perceptions of the SIU: they are either seen as with a pro-police bias, or as not professional enough to oversee the public’s largest servant.
The criticism speaks to when Toronto police shot and killed Andrew Loku, a black man with a history of mental illness. His 2015 death sparked anger from Black Lives Matter Toronto, which demanded for months that authorities release the name of the officer involved. His name was eventually released during an inquest into Loku’s death, which ruled it a homicide earlier this summer. But the SIU had already cleared the officer involved, on the grounds that it believed his actions to be justified. Loku’s case led to a review of the three provincial police oversight civilian organizations against pro-police bias.
SIU spokesperson Jason Gennaro told VICE News only three of their 14 lead investigators have a policing background and they are prohibited from investigating their former police service. “The Special Investigations Unit hires the most qualified and objective investigators, regardless of their backgrounds,” he said. But Cole sees injustice at every level, including the SIU. “None of this is ever going to be solved until we take power away from police and transfer it to systems and institutions that actually protect people, that actually support people.