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Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Policing police no simple matter

November 24, 2010
Kelly Egan, Ottawa Citizen

OTTAWA-There are 64 cells in the Ottawa police station, monitored by 89 video cameras.

And soon, possibly, an array of microphones.

A senior police officer said Tuesday the force is investigating the option of adding audio recording to the “prisoner processing area” of the cell block.

Supt. Mike Flanagan was careful to point out the initiative began in the summer and is not a reaction to the Stacy Bonds case, which broke last week with a judge’s stinging condemnation.

An outside agency has been called in to investigate how a woman walking down Rideau Street, possibly sipping on a beer, ends up arrested, strip-searched, forcibly restrained, then left for hours in a cell in a dishevelled state, never to be convicted of anything.

The plan for audio recording is not a secret way to gather evidence on suspects or eavesdrop on cell conversations, he said, but should be viewed as an “enhancement” of existing video equipment. It is commonly used in other jurisdictions, he added.

“Our goal is to be as transparent as possible,” said Flanagan.

It is possible that it could be used to monitor the conduct of officers, just as the video is, and should raise the “standard of professionalism” on display.

How to discipline officers, including how to fire them, is much in the news these days. Outside the police services board meeting this week, Chief Vern White was addressing that very topic, just as he was assuring the board there would be accountability in the Bonds case.

It is, clearly, damage-control time. A day after reassuring the board, White was attending a meeting of taxi drivers, many of them upset with the acquittal of an off-duty police officer who was involved in a fight at the airport taxi stand that left the driver with broken bones.

White says he and other chiefs across Ontario would like more authority in the area of discipline, including the right to suspend officers without pay.

It is a contentious point.

The president of the Ottawa Police Association said he would oppose such a move, as it represents punishment before the officer has had an independent hearing on the grievance.

“You can’t jump to the conclusion that they’re guilty,” said Steve Boucher.

The Ontario government has legislated the rules for conduct under the Police Services Act and both sides have to live with them, said Boucher.

“Just like anywhere else, the workers need protection. They need protection from arbitrary discipline and arbitrary termination.”

Police, indeed, are in a special category. Unlike much of the private sector, where non-unionized employees are protected by labour laws but little else, police are both unionized and have a separate disciplinary protocol, as spelled out in the Act, for more serious infractions. At hearings, they are represented by lawyers — their bosses, in effect, can’t just up and fire them.

It is, in fact, quite difficult to dismiss a police officer.

In a force with more than 1,300 officers, there might only be one or two dismissals per year, with a handful of suspensions.

Even being charged with a crime — and convicted — is often not enough to get an officer tossed off the payroll.

For example:

A constable is charged with shoplifting, theft and uttering a threat after an incident in a Loblaws in 2004. He is found guilty in criminal court, given a 12-month conditional sentence. The force wanted to fire him. On appeal, he won his job back, but it took more than three years, during which time he was suspended with pay.

An Ottawa police officer admitted to stealing crack cocaine from a motorist he stopped and from the evidence room. He was ordered dismissed, but fought the decision. He was paid roughly $70,000 a year during his three-year suspension. In the end, his appeal failed. A newspaper access request found the force spent $59,000 to pursue the prosecution.

In May 2008, police went to the home of an officer, in response to a call about a possible domestic assault. The officer was a 20-year veteran. He fought police, was stunned by a Taser and later escaped custody. He was sentenced to two years’ probation and given the odd condition that he not possess any firearms, except in the course of his police duties. A disciplinary hearing led to his dismissal from the force. He is now appealing.

In a little over a month this year, two off-duty Ottawa police officers were charged with impaired driving. In one case, a motorist struck a pole and a parked car. It is believed both officers are still on the payroll.

White was visibly irked Monday evening with persistent questions about the Bonds case. It is hardly a leap to think he’d like to hoof a couple of derrieres and maybe take a badge away.

But, in policing the police, it isn’t that simple.

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