A Greater Sudbury Police officer has been found guilty of discreditable conduct under the Police Services Act for comments he made on Facebook.
Const. Robert Rheaume had pleaded not guilty. He was charged with one count of discreditable conduct under the Police Services Act for breaching the provisions of the GSPS corporate communications and social media policy, as well as the workplace discrimination and harassment policy.
Prosecuting the case was lawyer David Migicovsky, while Rheaume was defended by lawyer Peter Brauti of the Toronto firm Brauti, Thorning and Zibarras. Rheaume made his first appearance before adjudicator Greg Walton, a retired OPP superintendent, back on Sept. 21, 2018.
No witnesses were called by either the prosecution or the defence. Counsel submitted an Agreed Statement of Facts (ASoF) and case law to support their submissions.
You can read the full text of the decision here.
Rheaume admitted to writing the Facebook posts in question, but argued the posts were his opinions, amounted to a taxpayer’s constructive criticism of the police service and the Police Services Board practices, and were protected under free speech rules.
The prosecution argued Rheaume had breached the GSPS communications and social media policy and the workplace discrimination and harassment policy, and rather than being general criticism, both targeted specific people and misrepresented the true facts of the situation.
What he wrote
On March 24, 2017, an article was posted on a local news website about the annual Sunshine list, released each year by the province that shows the salaries of all public sector employees earning $100,000 or more in the previous year.
On that same day, Rheaume posted comments on the comment thread under that article, in which he highlights the salary of the police service CAO Sharon Baiden, whose salary he said increased from $130,000 to $205,000 in four years.
“The year former (police) chief Frank Elsner left, she got a $48,000 raise. Sudbury taxpayers should be asking council how that happened,” he said in his post, according to the statement of facts.
Then, on March 28, he posted another comment on Facebook critical of raises given to higher-ups at Greater Sudbury Police Service.
“There are a handful of them that got extremely hefty raises; your taxes and mine going up because of the police service board's approval.”
He called out several members of the police service in his post by name, all women, some of whom received raises of more than $30,000 over a one-year period, asking “How do you f***ing justify that?”
What the adjudicator found
While defence attorney Brauti argued the GSPS policies amounted to a “gag order” on officers that flies in the face of the Charter rights protecting freedom of expression, Walton acknowledged the right to free expression, but said in any profession, that comes with limits.
“A member of the public has an unfettered right to criticize a police service, but a member of that same police service has a duty of loyalty. A police service has a duty and right to maintain discipline,” Walton wrote. “I have carefully considered and balanced the statutory objectives of the Police Services Act with the Charter rights of the officer. Police officers are also subject to internal policy, procedure, and the Police Services Act.
“For these reasons, police officers do not enjoy unrestricted freedom of expression.”
What’s more, Walton wrote, police officers by virtue of their profession as arbiters of right and wrong are held to a higher standard than other members of the public. Despite Rheaume’s argument that he was offering constructive criticism of GSPS operations, the evidence showed he singled out four managers for criticism, all of whom were women and with two of whom he had a difficult working relationship, Rheaume admitted.
He could have chosen to offer general criticism on management salaries at GSPS or pay increases for management staff, Walton said, but instead he singled out four specific people by name and editorialized about them specifically (and in the case of Baiden, inaccurately, having written that Baiden received a 50-per-cent salary increase, when the increase was in fact eight per cent).
When it comes to Baiden, Walton found that Rheaume specifically attempted to disparage her character by attempting to link her $48,000 salary increase to the departure of former chief Frank Elsner (a notorious figure locally and in the service, particularly at the time).
“It is obvious that Constable Rheaume knew or ought to have known these social media posts were likely to cause damage to the reputation of the Greater Sudbury Police Service,” Walton wrote.
“The context of the social media posts provide clarity; the posts are meant to discredit the reputation of the involved managers, suggesting the increases in salary were not based on merit and in the case of Ms. Baiden specifically, something was amiss.
“Constable Rheaume indicated it was the integrity of the Greater Sudbury Police Service or the Police Service Board he was questioning. His intent was to discredit the reputation of some members of the Service and thereby, by association, the reputation of the Greater Sudbury Police Service. His intent to do so is masked in a weak explanation of a political statement.
“I find Constable Rheaume’s behavior is likely to damage the reputation of the Greater Sudbury Police Service … I find Constable Rheaume guilty of discreditable conduct.”
A disciplinary hearing for Rheaume will be scheduled at a later date.