Ontario's police chiefs want changes to rules about suspended officers' pay

TORONTO – Suspended police officers in Ontario collect millions of dollars each year, and in the only province where police chiefs have no power to revoke their pay, there’s a push for change.

Even if convicted of a criminal offence, police officers in the province can continue to receive their salary.

That doesn’t sit well with David Stern, whose son was beaten up by Const. Jason Nevill in Barrie. Nevill was convicted last month of assault causing bodily harm, obstruction of justice and fabricating evidence.

He has been suspended since March 2011, when the charges were laid, and will still be paid at least until his sentencing in October or when he is fired following a police disciplinary hearing.

“It’s ridiculous,” said Stern, whose then 25-year-old son can be seen on mall security video being assaulted by Nevill. “As a citizen, of course once they’re convicted, that’s it. End of story. You’re no longer innocent.”

But under Ontario’s Police Services Act, the only circumstance in which a police officer doesn’t get paid while suspended is if he or she is convicted and sentenced to imprisonment.

If an officer is convicted of a crime but doesn’t have to serve time behind bars, they remain suspended with pay until they can be fired through the police disciplinary procedure. The same process applies to officers internally charged with misconduct.

If the officer appeals their termination, it can be delayed for months, even years.

The Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police found in a survey they conducted in 2008 that 52 officers in the province were on suspension at that time. Their annual salaries and benefits would have added up to about $4.8 million.

The survey received data from the provincial police and larger forces such as those in York Region, Waterloo Region, Ottawa and London, but not all of the police services responded.

Numbers for Toronto police were not included in the survey, but currently six of their members are suspended, said Mark Pugash, the director of corporate communications.

Ontario is the only province in which suspended police officers must be paid. Under other provinces’ police legislation, police chiefs have the discretion to suspend an officer with or without pay.

In some provinces a suspended officer gets their full pay for the first 30 days of the suspension, then whether they continue to be paid after that is up to the chief.

North Bay Police Chief Paul Cook, the president of the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police, has two officers out of his force of 94 on suspension as they face domestic violence charges.

“I hear about that weekly from my community and because of the processes that are in place I would expect that I’ll be hearing about that for upwards of the next three years or more,” he said.

“We’re paying these individuals to show up either at a police building or a courthouse, sign in and in many cases that’s all they have to do,” Cook said, referring to the check-in procedure for officers on suspension.

“That’s it for their 80-some thousand dollars. In this day and age how do we justify that within our communities?”

Police chiefs in Ontario are asking the province to give them the same discretion as their counterparts in the rest of the country. They have been calling on the government since 2007 to amend the act, but there doesn’t appear to be much movement to open up the act just to change one part.

Instead, working groups of police, police services board members and municipal and union representatives from across the province, as part of the Future of Policing Advisory Committee, are looking at the whole act, with an eye to proposing cost-saving changes to some of Ontario’s core policing duties.

Policing costs in Canada have risen from $7.3 billion in 2001 to $12.9 billion in 2011, according to Statistics Canada.

The working groups are looking at aspects such as whether lower level officers should be nabbing speeders instead of a constable earning nearly $100,000 a year, and what other duties could be performed by someone other than a police officer.

The Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services wouldn’t comment on the police chiefs’ proposal to end mandatory paid suspensions, except to say through a spokesman that they are awaiting the advisory committee’s recommendations.

Various interested groups have had brief, off-line discussions about suspensions without pay, said Dave McFadden, president of the Police Association of Ontario.

He wants to make sure that if there are any changes, police officers are still protected from such harsh consequences when someone “with an axe to grind” lays a complaint.

Police officers, like all other citizens, are presumed innocent until proven guilty, said McFadden, and even if they’ve been convicted of a criminal offence, they should still get their pay while they are exercising their right to appeal.

But McFadden said he understands people’s complaints.

“I get what the people are saying,” he said. “I’m a taxpayer too. But having said that, there’s a process in place.”

Police officers can also appeal their dismissal, first to the Ontario Civilian Police Commission, then they can appeal that decision to Divisional Court.

In practice, the termination is put on hold while an officer appeals to the OCPC and they continue to be suspended with pay.

The Ontario Association of Police Services Boards proposes a narrow amendment to the act, that sees officers’ pay stop once they are ordered dismissed, even if they appeal it.

Those are the more egregious cases that can drag on for years, said Fred Kaustinen, the executive director of the police services board association.

“They’re taking advantage of a loophole in the system to fund appeals that often have little chance of success,” he said.

“What we want to have is the right balance between protecting the public and protecting the rights of the individual police officer.”

Halton Regional Police Chief Steve Tanner suggests chiefs be able to suspend officers without pay if they are charged with the most serious offences, including homicide, sexual assault and offences involving children.

“People get very upset. It’s sort of an erosion of confidence,” he said.

“You hear people commenting in communities from time to time, ‘Well, how can that possibly happen? How can that person still be a member of the police service when they did this or that and now it’s been three or four years and they’re still getting paid.”

That leaves police services often unable to afford hiring someone to perform the officer’s duties while he or she is suspended, Tanner said.

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