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Former Toronto Police chief Julian Fantino's dismantling of an entire downtown plainclothes unit more than six years ago was an unfair "knee-jerk" decision that "sent an entirely exaggerated and incorrect message to the media and the public" about alleged police corruption.

That's the damning conclusion reached by senior labour arbitrator George Surdykowski after 42 days of hearings held in Toronto over three years.

What's more, Mr. Surdykowski found that the former chief's rationale for the move - a purported concern "about public perception and confidence" in the force - was also exaggerated and that the action he took "did more to exacerbate than alleviate" the problem.

The 68-year-old Mr. Fantino, who went on to head the Ontario Provincial Police, is now the Conservative candidate in the Nov. 29 by-election in Vaughan, north of Toronto, and touted as a likely contender for a high-profile cabinet job should he win.

The 113-page decision was released Oct. 24, with Mr. Surdykowski finding that two representative officers from the plainclothes unit were not only improperly transferred but also defamed by what the then-chief said in a media release and at a press conference.

The arbitrator hasn't yet determined the remedy for the unreasonable transfers or the amount of the damage award for the defamation.

Both Detectives Danny Bell and Everett Elliott are in fact excellent officers with fine records who previously had enjoyed stellar reputations for honesty and integrity, Mr. Surdykowski said. And then-chief Fantino could have discovered this "if he had made even a cursory attempt to obtain further information."

In fact, Mr. Surdykowski noted, the former chief didn't even know that most of the affected officers were never suspected of wrongdoing or likely to be charged.

He also dismissed the former chief's claim that he had to disband the whole team lest the ongoing investigation be jeopardized.

Though his ruling applies only to Dets. Bell and Elliott, the arbitrator suggested everyone in the plainclothes unit was badly served by the former chief's decision to disband the squad "willy-nilly."

The unit was abruptly torn apart, everyone in it permanently reassigned, the same night that one of its members, former Toronto detective-constable William (Billy) McCormack, was suspended amid allegations he was allegedly involved in a shakedown arrangement with bar owners in the downtown entertainment district.

The allegations against Mr. McCormack, a son of a former Toronto chief and brother of Mike McCormack, now the police union boss and then a director, drew sensational press attention.

What then-chief Fantino failed to do, Mr. Surdykowski said, was to make any distinction between the two separate teams (then-det.-constable McCormack was only ever a part of one team) in the unit.

That, the arbitrator said, "was clearly and recklessly wrong. It may be that Fantino was unable to distinguish between the two teams, but that is because he failed to make any effort to find out if there was a basis for doing so."

He said Mr. Fantino appeared to have overreacted to an incident that occurred the day the PCU members were called into headquarters, told they were "witness officers" in the bar probe and interviewed.

Badly shaken, some of the officers went across the street to a pub for a bite to eat and a couple of them had a drink.

When the former chief found out they'd done this, and not reported back to work at 52 Division, he "overreacted" and ordered them all transferred, Mr. Surdykowski said, and "no small part of his intent [in shutting down the unit]was to punish [them]…"

Billy McCormack was the only member of the unit who was ever charged criminally, and those charges were stayed late last year after a judge found his fair-trial rights had been breached by long delay.

Charges against Rick McIntosh, a former head of the police union, and Constable George Kouroudis, were also stayed.

Mr. Surdykowski's decision is yet another nail in the coffin of what was at the time treated, both by former chief Fantino and the media, as a sweeping police scandal.

Earlier that year, a probe headed by the RCMP saw six veteran officers with the central drug squad charged criminally.

These charges were later thrown out in 2008, then reinstituted against five of the six officers last year by the Ontario Court of Appeal, which ordered a new trial that has yet to begin.

But it was during that original investigation that detectives first came across allegations that police officers were taking bribes from nightclubs in the downtown entertainment district.

The various allegations were often conflated into a single long-running story of a police force in deep trouble.

For weeks, phrases like "widespread corruption probe," "shocking allegations" and "police misconduct" were regularly in the media; I wrote some of them myself. It appeared an enormous scandal, and in our stories we reporters often quoted the former chief in his trademark florid language.

As Mr. Surdykowski said, that language was what constituted the defamation of the two officers; Mr. Fantino's remarks were "full of innuendo, the implication being that everyone in the [unit]was under suspicion and probably guilty of something."

"It was a very tough time for all of our people," association boss Mike McCormack told The Globe and Mail Thursday, adding that much harm had been done to good people. It was in the circumstances a remarkable understatement.

cblatchford@globeandmail.com

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