In 2007, a constable with the Durham Regional Police was convicted of assaulting a female prisoner. He was suspended and demoted under the Ontario Police Services Act, but eventually returned to work. In 2011, during a routine traffic stop, he slammed a man's head into the roof of a car, struck the man repeatedly and pepper-sprayed him. Again, he was suspended and demoted.
During his second demotion, he started a foot chase with a man suffering from schizophrenia who had wandered into traffic. The scared man ran into his nearby home. The officer drew his gun, kicked in the front door, knocked the man to the floor and handcuffed him. He ignored the man's mother as she desperately tried to explain that her son was mentally ill. And then for good measure, after the man had been returned to his feet, the officer threw him to the ground again.
This time, finally, the officer was dismissed from the force.
What in God's name does it take to fire a bad cop in this country? That question arose again last week when a Vancouver police officer was convicted of assaulting a cyclist in an incident that was caught on video. In spite of his conviction, Constable Ismail Bhabha remains on patrol pending sentencing in the fall.
The video is incontrovertible. Constable Bhabha stopped Andishae Akhavan-Kharazi in March 2013 for allegedly running a red light on his bike and failing to wear a helmet. The police alleged Mr. Kharazi was unco-operative and that he needed to be detained. The video, shot by a friend of Mr. Kharazi, starts as Constable Bhabha and another officer are handcuffing their prisoner. He is passive but asking why he is being arrested. As his arms are being twisted behind him, he reflexively pulls one of them away and drops it to his side. It's nothing threatening.
And yet Constable Bhabha winds up and punches his subdued prisoner in the mouth. It's a vicious blow. You can hear the thwack.
So why is he still on the Vancouver force? Constable Bhabha has demonstrated he isn't up to the job. In the video, he abuses his authority and allows himself to over-react to the slightest of provocation. He is supposed to be the trained professional who keeps his head, but it is his hapless civilian prisoner who rises to the occasion and demonstrates the self-composure required for the job of being a police officer.
It is, in fact, very difficult to fire a police officer in Canada. Under the Ontario Police Services Act, officers charged with a criminal offence can be suspended with pay; one who is convicted can be suspended without pay. But moving from there to termination is long and onerous – so onerous, in fact, that Alok Mukherjee, the Toronto Police Services Board chair who resigned in June, once wondered if it is even realistically possible.
"Right now it is very, very hard to terminate a police officer," Mr. Mukherjee said in 2013 after a Toronto officer gunned down a mentally unstable man on a streetcar (the officer, James Forcillo, has been charged with second-degree murder and is back at work while awaiting trial this fall). "There are occasions where you say, 'How in God's name is this person still working here?'"
British Columbia has a similarly complicated termination process under its provincial Police Act. When an officer is found to have breached the act's code of conduct, a police force has to option to fire, suspend, demote or reprimand. But the act requires the police force to choose the punishment that will be the least onerous for the officer, and to focus more on remediation than punishment.
Last week, Vancouver's chief of police, Adam Palmer, defended the decision to keep Constable Bhabha on patrol. "He's a good police officer and he's highly regarded by his co-workers and a decorated officer," he said. "People may make a mistake on a certain day, but I don't think they should be judged for their entire career on just one thing."
No one argues with that. But it depends on what that one thing is. In 2008, an off-duty Ottawa officer who had been fired for shoplifting was reinstated by the Ontario Civilian Police Commission. An isolated instance of shoplifting is a forgivable lapse in judgment that didn't bring the Ottawa Police Service into any particular disrepute or harm a civilian.
Being convicted of an unprovoked assault that is captured on video is a different matter. The only thing standing between a rogue officer and his or her well-deserved termination is provincial legislation that usurps common sense.
Legislation can be changed, though. And it should be, because times have changed. We are now in the era of the citizen video, an era that has irrevocably demonstrated to the public that there are officers out there who are not up to the job, and who put civilians at risk.
This minority of officers should not be protected by outdated provincial police acts anymore. For the good of all, let's make it easier to fire those who forfeit their right to serve and protect.