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Canada Ontario looks to reform rules governing pay for suspended officers

A police officer is seen in this file photo.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

The Ontario government is close to hammering out a new law that would grant police chiefs the power to halt pay for suspended officers, which currently costs municipalities about $6.4-million a year and exacts an incalculable toll on public trust in local law enforcement.

Currently, Ontario is the sole province mandating police forces to maintain pay for any suspended officers, even those facing charges. Chiefs can revoke a suspended officer's salary only if the officer is sentenced to prison.

But that outlier status is set to change under a provincial push to reform the Police Services Act that follows the revelation one officer, who was paid hundreds of thousands of dollars during his suspension, boasted he was enjoying the time off.

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"I think we've come 80 per cent of the way towards a solution," said Joe Couto, director of government relations for the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police, which has been working directly with the province on reforms.

"The government has everyone talking at the table," Mr. Couto said. "At this point the lawyers need to figure out what's fair for everyone involved."

The current Ontario provision had led to several high-profile examples of suspended officers earning six-figure sums while disciplinary hearings and appeals drag for up to seven years. These cases are sporadic but costly. Between 2005 and 2009, Ontario's 12 largest police boards paid $16.9-million to officers facing disciplinary proceedings. In 2012, the last year figures are publicly available, the hit was $6.4-million, according to the Ontario Association of Police Services Boards (OAPSB).

The dollar figures account for only a fraction of the wider damage, critics say. "Effective policing requires the confidence of the community that officers will act legally and with integrity," said OAPSB executive director Fred Kaustinen. "Officers that are ultimately found guilty of offences and have been able to draw out their suspensions with pay for years, especially senior officers, those rare but noteworthy cases undermine that public confidence in policing."

The most recent example emerged from Waterloo this summer when a local officer earning a full salary while on suspension for three years wrote a letter to the force bragging about his punishment as if it were an extended vacation.

"I was able to sit home, take courses, travel and play lots of golf and get paid a first-class pay check, receive full benefits and a full pension for the past three years," wrote Craig Markham, who faced a criminal breach of trust charge and multiple Police Act charges for insubordination, discreditable conduct and breach of confidence. The charges stemmed from a 2011 incident during which Mr. Markham gave confidential police records concerning a man in custody to a suspected member of the Hells Angels.

Last year, the force gave him seven days to resign after a disciplinary hearing found him guilty of the Police Act charges, but Mr. Markham appealed, dragging out his pay until February, 2015, when the Ontario Civilian Police Commission upheld the earlier ruling and Mr. Markham resigned.

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He wrote the letter in March, boasting, "I am very fortunate to have received such a gift from the WRPS."

Apparently the feeling at the Waterloo Regional Police Service was mutual.

"It was he who gave us a gift after all those years and all the costs," said Waterloo police board chair Councillor Tom Galloway, who estimated Mr. Markham's off-duty earnings at $270,000. "We knew we had to use the letter to our advantage to try to move along this issue."

The police chief made the letter public. The tactic apparently worked.

In August, Minister of Community Safety and Correctional Services Yasir Naqvi vowed to address the issue as part of an effort to overhaul the 25-year-old Police Services Act.

Momentum is clearly in his favour. Even police unions have stopped staging much public opposition to the reform efforts. But they say the decision to suspend without pay should be made only in cases of "significant misconduct or guilt," said Canadian Police Association president Tom Stamatakis, who favours placing ultimate discretion with an independent adjudicator rather than a chief.

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"Suspending a police officer without pay is a dramatic step to take," he said. "It has a huge impact on that officer's family, future job prospects. If you're in that situation, your career is generally over."

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