Officials in Thunder Bay have suspended Police Chief Sylvie Hauth and begun the search for her successor, days after a tribunal revealed that she is to face a disciplinary hearing on allegations of misconduct.
The upheaval at the beleaguered police force is an opportunity for officials to install a change-maker as the next police chief of the Northwestern Ontario city, one observer says.
“The person should be an outsider,” said Gerry McNeilly, a former police watchdog in Ontario and the author of a landmark 2018 report about systemic racism in the city’s police force. The next chief, he said, has to arrive with “a good understanding of dealing with diverse communities, Indigenous communities.”
The Thunder Bay Police Service has faced a series of human-rights complaints in connection with its treatment of the city’s large Indigenous community, and has also been the subject of a number of external investigations. In another 2018 report, retired senator Murray Sinclair concluded that the local police board had failed to recognize and address a pattern of violence and racism against Indigenous people.
Municipal police chiefs answer to civilian boards in Ontario. But an oversight agency known as the Ontario Civilian Police Commission has powers to force changes atop both police services and police boards. It also probes police misconduct.
The OCPC is using these powers to overhaul policing in Thunder Bay. In April, the commission appointed Ontario lawyer Malcolm Mercer to oversee the board.
Last week, hours after Chief Hauth announced she would retire next year, the commission announced that she will face a hearing over three counts of alleged misconduct. There was no decision on her future with the service until Tuesday, when the police board announced in a late statement that “effective immediately, Chief Sylvie Hauth has been suspended from her role as a result of the serious allegations brought forward by the Ontario Civilian Police Commission (OCPC).”
The police force is deferring questions to the police board, which says that it has “no further comment as the matter is now before the OCPC.”
Months ago, that commission began probing the circumstances of a criminal investigation launched against Georjann Morriseau, an Indigenous police-board member in the city. Thunder Bay police started that probe. Weeks later, the city police force handed over the investigation to the Ontario Provincial Police in a bid to keep matters at arm’s length.
However, OCPC tribunal chair Sean Weir alleged early this year that in two separate October, 2021, memos, Chief Hauth “deceived or attempted to deceive the Thunder Bay Police Services Board by willfully or negligently making false, misleading or inaccurate statements” about the Morriseau investigation. A third count of misconduct against Chief Hauth alleges she brought discredit upon the police force by allowing it to proceed with the initial investigation before transferring it to the OPP.
Chief Hauth will have the opportunity to answer allegations at an OCPC hearing. But no date has been announced.
The clock is ticking on the misconduct charges, given the suspended chief announced she’s planning to retire in June, 2023. “I’d be generally surprised if they get to it within a year,” said Peter Brauti, a Toronto-based lawyer. The commission has no powers to discipline police officers who have moved on, he said. “Once you resign or retire you are no longer part of a service – so the act no longer applies.”
Mr. Brauti, who is not involved in the case, says OCPC hearings are frequently delayed by preliminary legal fights. Tribunals Ontario, the government body that oversees the OCPC, declined to comment Wednesday.
Chief Hauth joined Thunder Bay Police Service nearly 30 years ago and earns a $266,000 annual salary. The police board this week voted to hire an executive search firm to help pick the next police chief. Odgers Berndtson has taken on that same job three times in the past for the Thunder Bay Police Service and is due to report back at the end of the year.
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