Ontario’s police chiefs are calling for significant changes to the province’s officer discipline system, a move that would give police services greater ability to fire or suspend officers without pay.
Saying Ontario’s discipline system “simply no longer instills public trust,” the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police is urging the provincial government to make “substantive” changes that would include granting chiefs more power to stop paying officers accused of serious misconduct — or in extreme cases, fire them.
“We need to find a happy medium, but one thing’s for certain: it needs to change,” said Chatham-Kent Police Chief Gary Conn, president of the OACP.
Ontario’s police discipline system all but guarantees a police officer suspended from duty will receive a full paycheque, even while facing serious criminal charges.
Under Ontario’s Police Services Act, police chiefs can only cut off pay to a suspended officer if they are convicted of a crime and sentenced to jail time.
As it stands, Ontario is now the only Canadian province where suspended officers continue to collect their paycheques unless sentenced to jail.
The current system has let some suspended officers spend years collecting a salary while waiting for a disciplinary hearing or a trial.
For example, Chatham-Kent police officer Robert Mugridge received nearly $400,000 in salary while under suspension for more than three years. He eventually pleaded guilty in August 2017 to defrauding dozens of people of almost $250,000. However, he did not resign until 2018, before he was about to be fired.
Conn said the public is demanding more transparency and accountability from all police personnel, including chiefs and senior leaders.
“The current and proposed police discipline system puts officers, senior managers and the public through unnecessarily procedurally laden processes that take far too long to complete, does not meet normal labour law standards, does not protect subject officers and witnesses from pointless public exposure to intimate and personal details, and is far too costly at the provincial and/or municipal level,” said Conn. “We can and must do better.”
The OACP’s resolution calls for the creation of a new “grieve and arbitrates model” that would allow for disciplinary action to be taken swiftly. This would initiate a process where officers could then grieve the decision of an employer and have the case heard by an independent arbitrator.
Conn said for more serious penalties, including termination, an arbitration process would happen automatically. He noted the system would apply only to a small fraction of officers and be used “only in the cases that are extremely egregious.”
Since the new legislation will allow officers to be suspended without pay, Police Association of Ontario president Mark Baxter doesn’t know why the chiefs passed their resolution. His organization represents more than 28,000 police personnel from 46 police associations, including Chatham-Kent’s.
Baxter acknowledged there are circumstances where suspension without pay may be appropriate. However, he said there’s also a presumption of innocence. He said he’s concerned about the chiefs’ criticism that the current discipline system is procedurally laden and “takes too long.”
“We already know that chiefs of police are going to have the ability to suspend members without pay under certain circumstances. That’s already in the act,” Baxter said. “Why calling for that now when they’ve been an active stakeholder at the table for those meetings is confusing.”
Baxter also questioned Conn’s description of the discipline system as “procedurally laden.”
“We know that allegations against front-line police officers are common,” said Baxter. “It really has become a point now where it just kind of goes with the job. We need to ensure that officers’ rights are respected and that they’re entitled to due process when they receive a complaint.”
Baxter said the new act would also hold chiefs and deputy chiefs to the same standard as their officers, but the chiefs’ proposal does not.
“The system that they’ve proposed, essentially this ‘grieve and arbitrate system,’ removes the chiefs from public accountability,” said Baxter, whose association supports the Community Safety and Policing Act.
Bird Bouchard, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Ridgetown Independent News