The province's Special Investigation Unit has "lost its way" and needs to be completely overhauled if it hopes to be an effective police watchdog agency, according to Ontario's ombudsman.

Andre Marin released a scathing review on the SIU Tuesday afternoon, telling reporters the agency is a "toothless tiger" and "muzzled watchdog" that suffers from a faulty infrastructure, a lack of resources and a mandate that lacks clarity.

He slammed the civilian group for keeping their reports from public view and said SIU officials are being kept on a short leash by the ministry of the attorney general. In addition, investigators with the SIU -- many of them former police officers -- are loyal to a "police culture" that has no place in the agency, he said.

"We need to root out the police culture among the staff," he said. "The wearing of police rings by SIU investigators should not be tolerated. Some of them wore the rings in interviews with us."

The SIU, a provincial body that is called in to probe incidents where civilians are gravely or fatally injured in the presence of police officers, has responded favourably to the ombudsman's recommendations, Marin said.

However, he said the SIU has so far only made "vague" commitments," he added.

"I will be watching closely, because the SIU's commitments were couched in vague and vapid generalities, while the ministry's promise to consult with Ontarians on new legislation was rather amorphous."

The SIU has not commented publicly on the report.

Investigative mistakes

Among the more serious accusations Marin made against the SIU is that the agency's detectives often bungled investigations.

The law states that police must notify the SIU instantly if a civilian is injured in their presence. Marin's review found that often times the SIU was being called in more than an hour after the incident occurred.

"Any investigator will tell you that the first hour is crucial in any investigation," said Marin. "Police rarely notify the SIU as quickly as is mandated by law. The SIU fails to respond with rigour and intensity."

Marin said it is impossible to know if the outcomes of SIU probes would have been different if the investigation had been conducted in a proper way.

"There may have and there may not have (been different outcomes) but the mistakes throughout the investigative process are so glaring that it's impossible for us to know if they made a mistake in the outcome," he said.

Marin, who once headed the SIU, said he began his review of the agency after he noticed an increasing number of complaints.

There were 46 recommendations in his report. Among them is a request to make police co-operation with the SIU mandatory through legislation. He also recommends that the SIU investigate why the police have routinely not co-operated with the agency's regulations.

"The SIU has become so timid and fearful in its watchdog job role, that police oversight has hit rock bottom in Ontario," Marin said as he released the report.

"It has preferred to focus its energy on an introspective, esoteric, pie-in-the-sky journey that has little to do with holding police accountable."