Halifax police officers’ crimes can erode public trust, says advocate

In the last six years, 17 Halifax Regional Police officers have faced criminal charges, according to data obtained from police, numbers one community advocate says will likely erode public trust in the force.

The officers have been charged with a range offences, both on and off the job, including theft, sexual assault, assault, impaired driving and voyeurism. At least two have been tried and found guilty, while another two have pleaded guilty. This year, three officers were charged in a little over a month.

“I do think it’s alarming,” said DeRico Symonds, a community advocate who helped organize a protest against street checks in March. 

“This is an instance where it can erode public trust and relationships with the justice system and with the police force if there is an inordinate number of police officers breaking the law each year.”

DeRico Symonds is a community advocate and helped organize a protest against street checks back in March. (Brian MacKay/CBC)

Since 2014, there have been an average of about three officers a year charged with a criminal offence, a small fraction of the roughly 530 full-time officers on the force.

Symonds said it’s clear not all officers are bad. But he said many in the black community are apprehensive of police, fears that aren’t eased when officers break the law.

“I do have fear and anxiety if I do happen to have a traffic stop by police. I just do, it’s something I can’t help,” said Symonds. “I can’t say I totally feel safe in the hands of police officers.”

He wants the Halifax police force to become more transparent with the community and talk more openly about what happens when an officer is accused of a crime. Symonds would also like the force to hold more community forums and workshops where people can ask officers questions. 

More than 500 police officers make up the Halifax Regional Police force. (Paul Palmeter/CBC)

Halifax Regional Police Chief Dan Kinsella refused a CBC News interview request, but in October held two news conferences as charges were being pursued against three officers.

“The vast majority of the members of the Halifax Regional Police are living the core values, they’re upholding the law, they’re coming to work every day, they’re working hard and going the extra mile,” Kinsella said on Oct. 10.

“This behaviour will not be tolerated and one arrest, one charge is one too many,” he said.  

Dan Kinsella, chief of the Halifax Regional Police speaks at a news conference on Oct. 10. (CBC)

A number of officers have recently faced trial.

In June, Const. Laurence Gary Basso was found guilty of assault causing bodily harm for breaking a homeless man’s nose outside a shelter. Basso was on duty at the time. 

In January, Const. George Farmer was found guilty of voyeurism and breach of trust after he peered into the windows of the Esquire Motel in Bedford in 2017. At the time he was supposed to be in his police cruiser.  

This year, three officers have been charged.

Const. Jennifer McPhee is facing more than 30 charges related to thefts from Halifax grocery stores. Det. Const. Joseph Farrow is charged with sexual assault and unlawfully entering a home. And Const. Jeffery LeBlanc has been charged with uttering threats, improper storage and possession of firearms dangerous to the public peace. 

In a still from surveillance footage, Const. Laurence Gary Basso is seen punching Patrice Simard outside Metro Turning Point shelter in February 2018. (CBC)

It’s upsetting to see officers breaking the law because it hurts people’s confidence in the justice system, said Daniel Wallace, president of the Nova Scotia branch of the Canadian Bar Association. 

“But the fact that these charges are being brought and investigated can be seen as a positive in that they’re being taken seriously and that no one is above the law,” said Wallace. 

Nova Scotia is lucky to have an independent body like the Serious Incident Response Team to investigate the police and hold officers to account, he said.  

George Farmer in Halifax provincial court on Jan. 18, 2019. (CBC)

But some believe it’s possible to stop officers from going bad in the first place. 

“I think we’re just getting a handle on exactly how trauma and stress is impacting our people right across the country,” said Tom Stamatakis, president of the Canadian Police Association, which represents 60,000 frontline officers from across Canada.

“I think we’re still a ways away from building the capacity to manage the issue effectively, both in terms of access to support but also in terms of organizational capacity so it becomes OK for people to get help.”

People need to try and understand what officers deal with and balance their bad, sometimes criminal actions, against what can be a decades-long career of good policing, said Stamatakis.

Tom Stamatakis, with the Canadian Police Association, said police forces are just starting to get a handle on the trauma and stress some officers face. (Rob Short/CBC)

But drawing a direct link between psychological injuries and police officers committing crimes is oversimplifying things, according to Nicholas Carleton, a professor of psychology at the University of Regina who studies the mental health of public safety personnel.

“It’s very complex at the best of times for us to try and understand and predict how humans are going to behave,” said Carleton. “We don’t have evidence that suggests that a specific mental-health disorder directly leads to a specific kind of behaviour pattern.”

More research needs to be done before making assumptions about why officers decide to break the law, said Carleton. 

Monitoring and supervision are two ways to keep officers on the right side of the law, according to James Lowry, a retired member of the Toronto Police Service who was part of a task force that investigated corruption allegations against one of the city’s police drug squads.

Lowry said many police forces use programs to monitor officers’ behaviour. They look at the number of citizen complaints against an officer, the number of reports of an officer using force, along with other indicators. If supervisors start to see a problem, they can get the officer counselling, training or additional help.

Retired Toronto police officer James Lowry said if a police department supervises and monitors its officers well, fewer of them will break the law. (Robert Short)

Lowry said sometimes supervisors try to be too friendly with their subordinates and can let regulations slide. If supervisors address problems with officers’ quickly it could help prevent larger problems from forming. 

Symonds, the community advocate, said if police want to rebuild public trust in Halifax they need to be open about what they’re doing to curb officers bad behaviour. 

“I think it’s important just to be respectfully critical of these practices. I am hopeful that Dan Kinsella, as the new chief, that he’s going to bring some fresh perspectives to the Halifax Regional Police force,” said Symonds.

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