Public data on suspended police officers varies across Ontario. Experts say that needs to change
CBC Hamilton has learned that a Brantford, Ontario police officer has had a paid suspension since Oct. 18 — but the Brantford Police Service will not name the officer, who makes $95,500 a year, or the reason for the suspension.
The Hamilton Police Service currently has six police officers suspended and disclosed when they were suspended, but has not revealed the officers’ names or the reason for the suspensions.
The Halton Police Service also announced the number of officers suspended but no further details.
The Niagara Police Service, meanwhile, won’t say how many of its police officers were suspended last year and says anyone who wants that information must file a freedom of information request.
The police service across Ontario offers varying levels of detail when it comes to suspended officers. Because of this inconsistency, privacy experts, police researchers and a former police sergeant say the public in Ontario, the only province or territory in Canada that pays suspended police officers, should be able to get more information.
Former sergeant, privacy officer chimes in
The grounds for suspending police officers range from internal corruption and abuse of power to crimes against citizens, such as planting evidence in investigations and assault.
One expert says the nature of policing means the public should have the right to know more about any punitive measures taken against military personnel.
Stephen Metelsky, a professor of criminology at Mohawk College in Hamilton and a retired police sergeant, said the names of suspended officers should always be made public.
“The police have such a high-profile job,” Metelsky said. “Any ordinary citizen who is arrested or charged if they are over 18 will largely be published in the newspaper.”
Former Ontario privacy commissioner Ann Cavoukian believes the public should know all information about suspended officers — except their names.
She said an important consideration would be whether officers are told when they are hired that their names would be released if they were suspended.
When asked by CBC Hamilton, Ontario’s Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner (IPC) did not say whether or not the police services should openly name suspended officers.
IPC said institutions should “adopt open information practices and, where possible, make information readily available outside of the formal freedom of information process.”
“These laws are not intended to replace other less formal ways of informing the public, for example, how public money is being spent and how government agencies hold themselves accountable, including in relation to their employees,” the office said.
The IPC said there are exceptions under freedom of information laws that institutions can use to refuse to disclose names that could violate an individual’s privacy. However, if there is sufficient public interest, the officer’s right to privacy may be overridden.
When will suspended officers be named?
Police services in some cases release the names of suspended officers.
Hamilton Police, for example, has publicly named several suspended officers in recent years when prosecuted.
A recent case includes Acting Sgt. Brian Wren, who this month pleaded guilty to assault after reportedly kicking and kicking an Indigenous man’s head 13 times during an arrest.
However, a 47-year-old veteran Hamilton police officer charged with assault, suffocation and mischief in 2021 was not named to protect the identity of the victim.
Police officers accused of misconduct will be named when the Office of the Independent Police Review Director (OIPRD) announces the results of the Police Services Act hearings, but those officers will not necessarily be suspended.
For example, Hamilton Police Const. Ian Milburn pleaded guilty in November to discrediting conduct in connection with an attack in 2021. He was demoted for six months and placed on probation for 18 months.
He is named on the OIPRD website but was given administrative duties at his indictment rather than being suspended.
Police researchers want more transparency
Researchers speaking to CBC Hamilton said police services need to be more transparent, but some did not advocate naming all suspended officers.
“Some of the crimes are very minor and have no implications for public debates about policing,” said Ted Rutland, an associate professor at Concordia University in Montreal who researches policing in Canadian cities.
Rutland said officers who have harmed a citizen should be named.
He also said there should be standardization between police services and disclosure should not be voluntary. The public data, he said, could allow the public to hold police accountable.
Patrick Watson, an assistant professor of criminology at Wilfrid Laurier University, said federal and provincial governments should pass legislation similar to the US’s George Floyd Justice in Policing Act
One of the aims of the law is to create a register to collect data on complaints and records of police misconduct.
It is named after Floyd, whose death at the hands of police in 2020 has since prompted closer scrutiny of police operations and budgets, including in Ontario cities like Hamilton.
“It would be nice to see the province recognize that the institution of policing is very unique in our society and … requires a little more transparency than other parts of the bureaucracy,” Watson said.
Kevin Walby, associate professor of criminal justice at the University of Winnipeg, said police and governments should at least share information on the number of officers suspended.
“The data is usually already available. It just needs to be put in a portal for people to access,” he said.
“We’re already paying… we shouldn’t have to dig around and beg.”