There is no reason police officers should not face appropriate consequences when they are found guilty of misconduct, says a constitutional expert who has written at length about police accountability.
When two Greater Sudbury Police Service officers were demoted earlier this month after both pleaded guilty to discreditable conduct and one pleaded guilty to fraud under $5,000, the decision sparked a public outcry in the community.
Many people in the Nickel City argued the punishment did not fit the infraction, and said both officers should have been fired, rather than demoted.
But husband and wife Const. Christopher Labreche and Const. Kathryn Howard were demoted on Dec. 5 following a disciplinary hearing under the Police Services Act.
The demotions, after they admitted to defrauding their workplace's benefit program, will cost them a combined $88,981, the Greater Sudbury Police Service confirmed.
“Police chiefs across the country often refer to 'their hands being tied' when it comes to discipline,” said Lorne Sossin, the dean of York University's Osgoode Hall Law School, in an email to Sudbury.com.
Sossin has written extensively about police accountability in Ontario throughout his career, and while he could not speak directly to the Labreche and Howard case, he agreed to answer more general questions about the procedures in place to hold police accountable in Ontario.
“There are a number of procedural fairness mechanisms built into the police disciplinary model — many of which are well-justified in the abstract (presuming someone innocent until proven guilty, or looking for progressive and educative outcomes rather than punishment, etc), but which in practice can give rise to the view that police officers get off lightly when engaging in misconduct,” he said.
“I think where a police chief has followed appropriate protocols and respects procedural fairness, etc, there is no reason consequences cannot flow from misconduct that fits the offence, and reflects the gravity of the breach of trust.”
Sossin said police occupy a unique role in our communities as the only ones with the authority to use force, and should be held to a higher standard for those reasons.
“In the Sudbury case, I don't know all the details, but breaches of trust are particularly significant in those who hold the kind of authority we entrust to police,” he said. “On the other hand, improper uses of violence or obstructing justice are often seen as more serious infractions than those involving fraud or financial gain.”
Sossin said police accountability is reviewed in multiple ways, by the Office of the Independent Police Review Director, civilian complaint bodies like the Ontario Civilian Police Commission, human rights commissions, the provincial ombudsman, and with civil and criminal justice where relevant.
Sossin said it's important for police services to clearly communicate the reasons for any discipline to maintain the public trust, something that will happen in the case of Howard and Labreche.
“Why was a temporary demotion rather than more serious outcome appropriate in this case?” he asked. “There will always be reasons. Maybe those reasons relate to how other comparable cases have been dealt with or mitigating factors in the circumstances or genuine remorse and rededication to rebuilding trust after the incident, etc.
“Some aspects of the 'reasons' may not be possible to disclose for privacy reasons but a police chief or other decision-maker always should be able to provide an account for their decision, and how it serves the public interest and reflects the police's commitment to public trust and confidence.”
To that end, the Greater Sudbury Police Service said in a press release following Labreche and Howard's demotions, that the hearing officer in their case will provide full written submissions on the penalties in the new year.
“I have confidence in the systems of accountability and discipline as outlined in the Police Services Act and that these principles were upheld in today’s decision,” Greater Sudbury Police Chief Paul Pedersen said in a press release following the demotions. “The Tribunal took in to account all of the complex issues at hand when considering its options. It is never a proud moment when our members are found guilty of a breach of our code of conduct, however, these officers have accepted responsibility for their actions and we are prepared to move forward.
“Citizens can be assured that the actions of these Officers are in no way a reflection of the professional and dedicated members of the Greater Sudbury Police, who serve this community every day with respect, honesty and integrity.”