Inside Queen's Park: Chiefs crossing the thin blue line

There’s one thing you learn quickly when you hang out with police officers while doing your job: you’ll never be one of them.

Theirs is a closed world of fraternity, trust, and a healthy suspicion of outsiders. You can be liked and even accepted but unless you wear the uniform, you’ll always be looking in.

So when the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police descended on Queen’s Park recently to lobby for a list of legislative changes, one of the issues immediately raised a red flag among the rank and file.

In addition to changes that would streamline the Provincial Offences Act process by allowing written affidavit testimony in administrative cases instead of requiring viva voce evidence, the association also wants an amendment to s. 89 of the Police Services Act to give chiefs discretion to suspend officers without pay in the event they are charged with a serious offence.

As it stands now, Ontario chiefs can only suspend with pay when an officer is charged. Given the time it takes to process charges through the courts, that means officers can collect their salaries for years and continue to do so even after they’ve been convicted since an appeal can protract things even further.

“We’re not talking about offences alleged on duty; it’s about serious offences while off-duty,” says Marco Visentini, a lawyer and adviser to the association who works for the Hamilton Police Service.

“In the case of serious offences, in which the accused may be held in custody without bail which then would prevent them from doing their duty, the chief should have the discretion to suspend without pay.”

The status quo, he says, allows police officers charged with crimes like murder to collect their salaries for several years, a scenario that doesn’t sit well in the eyes of the public.

A case in point is that of Toronto Const. Richard Wills, who was convicted of first-degree murder in the death of his girlfriend after 5 1/2 years of bizarre antics.

Similarly, Hamilton police officer Craig Galassi was paid $300,000 over five years while he fought a litany of charges over his conduct towards his colleagues.
It’s a rare circumstance, says Visentini. Only about 50 Ontario cops a year are suspended with pay across the province, costing about $5 million.

Still, it’s something the chiefs’ association wants changed, much to the ire of lawyers like Harry Black in Toronto, the go-to guy for representation when an officer faces charges.

“This is not an amendment that should be passed into law,” thunders Black. “They may say it is intended to cover the Wills situation, but the reality is if an officer is charged with any criminal offence, including, for example, domestic assault or other types of assault off-duty, they will be at risk of suspension without pay.

Similarly, if someone in the community bears ill will toward them for any reason, whether connected to the execution of their duties or not, all they have to do is lay an information before a justice charging them with any number of offences.”

In short, it’s a slippery slope. Black says those offences could range from improper storage of a licensed and registered personal firearm to property offences and criminal harassment.

“There is literally an endless string of criminal charges that could be laid against the officer,” he says. “This is a provision that could be readily abused and with disastrous consequences. First of all, it is unique to policing that the employer is also the investigator and the person laying the charges.

This unity of employer-charger is significant. Secondly, an officer would be unable to defend himself if suspended without pay. Thirdly, officers facing criminal charges are unable to find other employment.

“Lastly, the Ontario Court of Appeal observed in Mahood [v. Hamilton-Wentworth Regional Board of Police Commissioners] that depriving an officer of his remuneration would be offensive to the public good.”

His position, not surprisingly, is echoed by Mike McCormack, president of the Toronto Police Association.
“Police officers hold public office,” says McCormack, who had his own tussles with police brass during his 23-year career on the front lines before his election last year as union boss.

“As such, they have tenure and cannot be removed from office without appropriate judicial process.”
Removing the protection of suspension with pay creates a powerful weapon that management could use to silence officers, he says.

Given the government’s task of selling the harmonized sales tax this summer and riding out the resulting storm, don’t hold your breath for any dramatic changes on this point. However, you can bet the chiefs’ association will be back again.

Ian Harvey has been a journalist for 32 years writing about a diverse range of issues including legal and political affairs. His e-mail address is [email protected].

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