Investigation Ongoing

A Review of Joseph Martino’s Director’s Reports for Cases Reported to Ontario’s Special Investigations Unit (SIU) from January 1st, 2020 to June 30th, 2020.

A Review of Joseph Martino’s Director’s Reports for Cases Reported to Ontario’s Special Investigations Unit (SIU) from January 1st, 2020 to June 30th, 2020. [Retrieved: August 4th, 2020.]

This essay contains descriptions of police violence resulting in serious injury and death.

On July 7, 2020, Hamilton Police Services officers shot and killed a man in my neighbourhood. The CBC News Hamilton headline was vague: “SIU investigating after Hamilton police-involved shooting leaves man critically injured.” Global News and The Toronto Star’s headlines were similarly obscure: “Ontario’s police watchdog probing officer-involved shooting in central Hamilton” and “SIU investigating shooting involving police that injured man in Hamilton.”

In Ontario, the Special Investigations Unit (SIU) is responsible for investigating “circumstances involving police and civilians that have resulted in serious injury, death or allegations of sexual assault.” Once such an investigation is complete, the SIU’s Director will issue a report providing the details of the incident and indicating whether the officer in question is criminally responsible. Until the report is made public, incident details are restricted as a matter of policy, often resulting in a lack of clarity in media coverage.

The cagey language quoted in the headlines led me to seek out the original report available on the SIU’s website. As I read that report, along with the 50 other SIU reports for incidents that occurred between January 1 and June 30, 2020, I noticed the author was using grammar in ways that effectively resisted assigning responsibility to police officers for their actions.

To be thinking so much about grammar while Black, Indigenous and People of Colour (BIPOC) are being murdered and assaulted by police feels pedantic. And yet, in the words of Dionne Brand, “no language is neutral”—the words we use and how we use them reflect and advance our worldview. Brand’s statement is true even more so for the SIU. It is essential then that we understand what ideology lurks behind this syntax, this diction, this grammar.

Of the 1,125 sentences in the reports I analyzed, the author[1] used the passive voice more than 240 times—or in roughly 21% of their sentences—as calculated using the digital writing tool Grammarly. While use of the passive voice is not necessarily ungrammatical, the passive voice “can be vague about who is responsible for the action.” Considering that the SIU’s primary function is to determine whether police officers are criminally responsible for their actions, the author’s persistent use of passive voice raises concerns about the effectiveness and objectivity of their reports.

The most notable example of passive voice that I found when reading the SIU reports was in Case # 20-OCI-050—an incident on March 9, 2020, in which two Gananoque Police Services officers broke a 31-year-old man’s ribs:

In the result, while it is regrettable that the Complainant’s ribs were fractured when he was forced downwards and struck a table in the process, I am satisfied on reasonable grounds that the takedown was a measured and proportionate response to the exigencies at hand.

The Complainant was “forced downwards” but the author does not specify by who. However, earlier in the same report, the author explains that:

[The Complainant] had made it as far as the booking area when he was pushed from behind by the SO [Subject Officer] into a metal table. The Complainant’s chest struck the table’s edge as he went down with the officer’s weight behind him, who had gone down with the Complainant.

Confidentiality notwithstanding, I am hesitant to repeat the use of the initialism “SO” here as it distances the officers in question from their actions. Like a badge number, these initials keep us one step removed from the officer’s actual identity and thus one step removed from accountability. Even the phrasing of “officer’s weight” in the quote above—instead of the officer or the officer’s body—is obscuring. Weight does not exist in isolation. Nonetheless, this is the language used in the reports and I fear these already-cryptic excerpts will become muddled if I stray too far from the original.

Notably, the author does not dispute that the SO pushed the Complainant. The link is clear and stated factually earlier in the report, and yet in the conclusion, after having decided the SO is not criminally responsible, the author entirely omits the officer’s presence.

It is understandable that the author of these reports, which have substantial legal implications, would want to be careful about who they accuse of what. However, the Analysis and Director’s Decision section of every report includes the following disclaimer:

Pursuant to section 25(1) of the Criminal Code, police officers are immune from criminal liability for force used in the course of their duties provided such force was reasonably necessary in the execution of an act that they were required or authorized to do by law.

Why then, if the author has clearly stated that police officers are permitted to use force in the execution of their duties, and the author accepts that the officer’s use of force described above was “reasonably necessary,” would the author not simply state, “the SO fractured the Complainant’s ribs by forcing him down into a table”?

 The SIU cannot claim their investigations are anything close to rigorous if the author of these reports consistently fails to identify the actions in question as police actions in the first place.

Such instances of passive voice distance officers from their actions, even if, in other places in the same report, the author admits the SO is responsible for the violent act in question. This distancing is problematic because it is in direct conflict with the SIU’s stated mandate of ensuring “that police actions […] are subjected to rigorous, independent investigations.” The SIU cannot claim their investigations are anything close to rigorous if the author of these reports consistently fails to identify the actions in question as police actions in the first place.

Similar to the way the author omits the officer’s presence through passive voice, they also displace officers’ agency onto their weapons in numerous SIU reports. The report for Case # 20-OCI-017 includes multiple instances of this phrasing with regard to a Conducted Energy Weapon (CEW) or taser:

An enraged Complainant refused the SO’s direction to get on the ground and was met with another CEW discharge as he advanced on the officer. Again, the CEW failed to immobilize the Complainant.  

Once more, I am hesitant to use the initialism “CEW” as it distances us from the fact that what these three letters refer to is a weapon capable of piercing human skin and delivering a high-voltage electric shock, not to mention what that electric shock does to a human body.

It is telling that in these reports, the author refers to both police officers and their weapons using initialisms because, as we can see in the examples above, the line between officer and weapon is continually blurred. In two consecutive sentences, the author grants agency to the CEW by failing to address who is holding the weapon or who triggered the discharge. Instead, in the second sentence, the author suggests it is not the SO who fails to immobilize the Complainant, but the CEW itself.

Additionally, the author uses the phrasing “was met with” repeatedly throughout the reports to describe officers punching, striking, or tasing the Complainants. The genial tone of “met” is in stark contrast to the adjective “enraged,” which the author uses to describe the Complainant. This mismatched language provides another cause to worry about the author’s objectivity and is repeated throughout these reports.

The author uses similar phrasing in the report for Case # 20-OVI-044. While the incident involved a police cruiser, which one might not typically consider a weapon, the author states plainly, “The SO decided to use his vehicle as a weapon.” From there, the report states, “The cruiser accelerated forward, and its front right bumper collided with the Complainant.”

If there is no dispute about who was behind the wheel, why then at the moment of impact, of violence, does the officer suddenly disappear?

The adage “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people” might here be adapted to “Cruisers don’t accelerate into people, drivers do.” Who then was driving the cruiser? The author states this unequivocally later in the report: “The SO, the driver of the cruiser, was identified as the subject officer for purposes of the SIU investigation.” Still, the SO is absent above. If there is no dispute about who was behind the wheel, why then at the moment of impact, of violence, does the officer suddenly disappear?

I want to highlight one last variation of the author’s use of language to shift responsibility where, instead of displacing the responsibility for harm to the officer's weapon, the author places responsibility on an intangible noun.

In the aforementioned Case # 20-OCI-017, the author states:

[T]he CEW failed to immobilize the Complainant […] the officer used his right hand, still holding the CEW, to strike the Complainant’s head in the area of his left eye. The blow felled the Complainant but did not pacify him.

While the author states clearly in the first sentence that the officer struck the Complainant in the eye with a taser, the author then separates the action from the actor in the very next sentence. The officer is ostensibly responsible for the blow, but not for felling or failing to pacify the Complainant.

The author uses a nearly identical technique in the report for Case # 20-OCI-038 when they state, “Those punches struck the Complainant’s torso and do not appear to have caused any injury.” Much like a blow, a punch cannot strike on its own. A punch or a blow cannot actually do anything because they do not have physical forms; they are simply actions requiring an actor to take place.

Instead of self-driving cars and autonomous tasers, here we have a “blow” and “punches.” And while the author may come one step closer to holding police accountable for their actions in the examples above, it is still not close enough; a gap remains between the actor, the act, and the consequences.

It is difficult to draw conclusions about the author’s intent in their persistent use of passive voice. Perhaps it is a slippage; perhaps it is intentional obfuscation. Regardless, the repeated use of the passive voice is troubling because, at best, it is an act of omission. It is challenging to determine the difference between willful evasion and an inability to write with clarity, so there is always an opportunity for the author to plead ignorance. Whether or not the author’s intent was malicious, the outcomes are the same—the repetition of the passive voice in these reports distances police from the consequences of police violence.

The perniciousness of white supremacy is such that white people (myself included) perpetuate it without intending to or necessarily even being aware that they are doing so.

The Black Lives Matter movement has underscored that determining intent is not always the most important aspect of addressing a wrong. The perniciousness of white supremacy is such that white people (myself included) perpetuate it without intending to or necessarily even being aware that they are doing so. But whether they intend to perpetuate it or not, they are still doing so; the outcome is still the perpetuation of white supremacy.

Perhaps it is similar here. The passive voice is present in these reports. It is present and it doesn’t need to be. Each time it is used in the examples above, the author explicitly states who performed the action in question elsewhere in the report. And yet, this refusal to assign responsibility persists in one of every five sentences, putting distance between the officers and their violent acts. The author’s reliance on the passive voice is so problematic because it perpetuates white supremacy by—intentionally or otherwise— obscuring the details of police violence that disproportionately affects Black and Indigenous people.

The What We Do section of the SIU’s website explains that the purpose of these investigations is for the agency’s Director to “form [. . .] a belief” about what happened in the incidents in question. While the SIU’s use of this phrase reads to me as grandiose, I think it provides a helpful description of what language does to us: it not only reflects, but forms what we believe about the world, what it is possible for us to think and feel and express.

The obscuring phrases that I’ve examined above are so much a part of the rhetoric of the SIU that the question of whether the author intended to mislead us stops mattering. The fact of the matter is that these passive phrasings obscure who is responsible for police violence and instead direct the reader’s attention solely toward the victims. While it is certainly important to attend to the victims, the author’s failure to identify the perpetrators of police violence actively hinders any possibility of these SIU reports providing meaningful accountability. If we, the public, cannot see these incidents of police violence clearly, how can we make informed decisions—“form a belief”—about the future of policing and what we deem to be “reasonably necessary”?


[1] It is difficult to determine exactly who the author(s) is beyond the statement, which appears at the bottom of each report:

Electronically approved by

Joseph Martino
Special Investigations Unit

This being the case, I use the singular throughout, knowing there may well have been multiple authors.

About the author

Ben Robinson is a poet, musician, and librarian. His most recent chapbooks are Keeps on Running from The Alfred Gustav Press and Dept. of Continuous Improvement from above/ground press. He has only ever lived in Hamilton, Ontario on the traditional territories of the Erie, Neutral, Huron-Wendat, Haudenosaunee and Mississaugas. You can find him online at