Suspended police officers blame unfair disciplinary process for costing taxpayers millions

Const. Pierre Fournier and Delphine stand nose to nose on a farm in south Ottawa.Fournier is keeping a close eye on Delphine, a Jersey cow with a swollen, pregnant belly.A few days a week, Fournier volunteers at this dairy operation in Osgoode Township. “It’s therapeutic for me,” said Fournier, who was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder in 2018. “I should have been a farmer,” he said. But Fournier is a seasoned Ottawa police officer with two decades of law enforcement experience. The 54-year-old has been on and off the job for four years. In 2021, while off duty and still on medical leave for PTSD, Fournier was suspended from the force and charged criminally for what he calls a “five-second” altercation.Compared to his struggles with PTSD, Fournier said it’s the suspension and the ensuing criminal and disciplinary charges that ruined his reputation, added stress to his life and made it even more difficult to return to work.”It’s affecting me psychologically,” he said. “I don’t want to finish my career this way…. I have a clean record. I’ve done nothing wrong.”Fournier has been an Ottawa police constable for 20 years. He was suspended in 2021. (Submitted)Throughout his one-year suspension, Fournier was paid his full salary under a provincial policy that he understands might be unpopular with the public, but says is much more complicated than meets the eye. Fournier’s is one of more than 450 officer suspensions across 44 police departments in Ontario over the past decade that have cost taxpayers more than $134 million.The full scope of paid suspensions and their costs were revealed for the first time in an exclusive CBC investigation, which prompted public debate over police budgets and outrage online. Several previously suspended officers tell CBC they agree the process is flawed, but point to systemic issues that led to their suspensions and kept them on paid leave for months or even years. They say police chiefs are too quick to suspend officers, and the investigations into alleged wrongdoing are too often conducted by their own colleagues.Those in charge don’t see it that way, however.Officers who’ve experienced the disciplinary process, including Fournier, say there needs to be change, including a more innovative and constructive way to resolve conflicts and seek accountability from officers that doesn’t send them on a prolonged bureaucratic journey.Until recently, Ontario was the only jurisdiction in Canada where nearly all suspended police officers were entitled to their full pay while under investigation for misconduct or breaking the law. New legislation that came into effect April 1 now gives police chiefs the power to suspend problematic officers without pay, but only under strict terms. Fournier currently volunteers his time at a dairy operation in rural Ottawa. He’s on medical leave now, but was suspended from the force for a year in 2021. (Michel Aspirot/CBC)’I don’t want to finish my career this way’Fournier’s suspension stems from an incident in the spring of 2021 when he and his brother got into a scuffle with a group of six teens. Fournier said the kids were trespassing on a friend’s rural property in south Ottawa, something that happened frequently. He said he yelled out and when one boy lunged at him, Fournier pushed the teen away. “It lasted five seconds,” he said. He doesn’t think what happened was serious enough to warrant a suspension, but Fournier was nevertheless charged with assault and mischief. A year later, the criminal charges against him were dropped. In January, a retired police superintendent who oversaw Fournier’s disciplinary hearing found him guilty of one count of discreditable conduct. He’s now back on medical leave, and eventually hopes to return to work.Like most Ontario cops, Fournier earns more than $100,000 a year and his name is on the province’s Sunshine List. At the time of his suspension, he had to hand in his ID card, badge and gun. Fournier was being paid to stay home — an experience that for him was anything but a sweet deal.”So much frustration, disbelief just that you could be treated that way,” Fournier said. “We’re just a number, and at the end of the day, who cares?”‘Interminable delays’While there have been some egregious cases of police officers convicted of crimes and sentenced to time in prison over the past decade, 241 of the 396 suspensions involving a criminal charge tracked by CBC — roughly 61 per cent — concluded with no conviction.The remaining 57 cases involved disciplinary charges only for allegations such as deceit, insubordination, discreditable conduct, neglect of duty and breach of confidence.Non-criminal cases include officers who accessed police records to snoop on romantic partners, leaked police information to private citizens, made racist statements or sexually harassed female colleagues. Despite the fact these 57 disciplinary cases didn’t involve the criminal court system, the median length of suspensions was 511 days — about a year and four months.”These interminable delays are now just accepted as routine, and I saw it throughout my career. I mean, it’s just normal,” said Greg Brown, a former Ottawa Police Service (OPS) officer who now lectures and consults on policing issues in Canada and the U.S.. CBC spoke to five officers from across Ontario who were suspended at least once over the past decade. These officers all say suspensions are too often at the “whim” of police administrators, and say their bosses could have found administrative duties for them to perform rather than sending them home. Jeff McGuire, executive director of the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police, denied chiefs are acting in a “vindictive” manner.”The chief’s job is not as simple as just being a whim of saying, ‘I think I’ll suspend this person.’ I personally don’t buy that,” said McGuire, who served as chief of the Niagara Regional Police Service from 2012 to 2017.Sandy Smallwood is a former member of the Ottawa Police Services Board. (George-Etienne Nadon-Tessier/CBC)Former Ottawa Police Services board member Sandy Smallwood said in his 10 years as a civilian member of the oversight body, he never witnessed an officer being suspended too hastily.But he noted he did see prolonged suspensions that were eventually dealt with through costly resolutions such as a dismissal settlement. “Ultimately it sort of went away because people got frustrated and finally just made some sort of deal and the taxpayer was out the money,” said Smallwood. Cop vs. copSeveral officers told CBC they believe it’s a conflict of interest to be investigated by their own colleagues.”Your co-workers are actively trying to find you guilty,” said one officer who CBC has agreed not to name because he signed a non-disclosure agreement with his southwestern Ontario police service.  Fournier’s case was another example where the responsibility to investigate him fell on his colleagues. He said one of the biggest issues was unequal scrutiny.”Some people are doing some things they are not getting suspended for, and some are not even getting a slap on the hand,” he said. “We’re talking staff sergeants, we’re talking inspectors that have done stuff that is all hushed.”In some cases, chiefs can ask a neighbouring police service to investigate. In cases of death, serious injury or sexual assault, Ontario’s Special Investigations Unit (SIU), a civilian oversight agency, gets involved. Regardless of outcome, officers tell CBC there’s an immediate stigma attached to their suspension.The individual from southwestern Ontario said when he returned to work, his peers treated him “like a leper.””It’s not a paid vacation. It’s stressful, and there are massive legal bills,” said the officer, who was suspended for three years before criminal charges against him were dropped.  Greg Brown, the researcher, agrees a suspension can be a “career ender” for officers. “If you’re suspended with pay for a long time, regardless of what the ultimate disposition is, it causes severe damage to the officer’s mental health as well as their professional reputation,” he said.Vern White, former police chief in Durham and Ottawa, says police forces should consider restorative justice when disciplining officers. (Fred Chartrand/The Canadian Press)Restorative justice solutionOne proposed solution to avoid a lengthy, costly process is to borrow elements from restorative justice — finding ways to recover the losses of the victim, holding the officer accountable and building peace in the community.”We had cases where probably between the union and the police service, we spent upwards [of] $1 million in legal fees, and at the end of the day the officer wasn’t guilty, and in one particular case the officer, I would argue, should never have been charged,” said former senator Vern White, who served as police chief of Durham for two years before taking command of Ottawa police from 2007 to 2012.  White said that’s why, during his time as chief in Ottawa, he tried to find a quicker way to resolve disciplinary cases while still ensuring accused officers accepted responsibility.”We were able to deal with a fair number of our cases through restorative justice,” said White, who wrote his master’s thesis on the practice. “Officers that went through that will tell you that from their perspective, it was the fairest thing they’ve been involved in.” In a 2016 example, disciplinary charges were laid against an OPS officer for hurtful, racist remarks about an Inuk woman.The officer was ordered to take sensitivity training, and members of the Indigenous community initiated an intervention that led the officer to apologize and come to terms with the impact of what he’d said.Fournier volunteers at a rural Ottawa farm while he’s off on medical leave. He was suspended for a year between 2021 and 2022. (Michel Aspirot/CBC)Hunting, golfing and cowsThe OPS said it does use restorative justice practices, but Pierre Fournier said he was never offered that option. He thinks that’s exactly what was needed in his case.”I asked to bring the parties together to talk,” he said.Instead, the disciplinary decision calls for Fournier’s pay to be docked for 10 days.”He breached the public trust in his actions when dealing with youths and the OPS, as the employer, must retain and exercise the ability to invoke proper discipline,” wrote retired OPS superintendent Chris Renwick in his decision last month.Fournier remains on medical leave and said he’s appealing the punishment.He still hopes to return to work before his looming retirement in two years. What does he want to do then? “When I retire, exactly this,” said Fournier, looking at the cows. “My hunting, my golfing and the cows. I’ll be happy.”Ottawa Morning7:55Suspended officers and a former police chief on the damage caused to a careerReporter Julie Ireton talks with officers who’ve been suspended and faced charges about alternatives to keep paid officers working.

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