FREDERICTON — At least 16 New Brunswick police officers have been suspended or fired in the past year, and a criminology professor says it is eroding public confidence in police forces.
“It is going to take time to see how deep that erosion is but it certainly raises doubts in the public’s minds how much trust and faith we can put in our frontline officers,” said Michael Boudreau, who teaches at St. Thomas University in Fredericton.
“Some people continue to support the police because they know that for the most part officers are doing their jobs and…are not running afoul of the law. For others, these incidents reinforce their lack of confidence and strident criticisms of police.”
The municipal police force in Fredericton has had about a half-dozen officers suspended in the past year, including two fired in the last month following arbitration.
Fredericton Police Chief Leanne Fitch issued a statement last week saying these are “troubling times” for her force.
“It is important to remember that there are still many hard working officers on our force and we are so proud of their immense dedication and professionalism,” she wrote.
Other forces have been in the spotlight as well. Two officers in Bathurst have been charged with manslaughter after a man was shot to death inside his car.
As well, Roger Brown, commanding officer of the New Brunswick RCMP, announced last month that four of 20 officers in the Woodstock detachment had been suspended — all accused of discreditable conduct.
One has since retired and the suspension against another has been lifted. The others, who Brown is seeking to have suspended without pay, face a code of conduct review and a criminal investigation.
In total, eight of the 732 RCMP officers in the province are currently suspended, including two who are suspended without pay as a result of charges of forgery and impaired driving.
During a news conference in December, Brown called the suspensions of RCMP and municipal officers “embarrassing,” but said there’s only so much that chiefs can do.
“I’m a commanding officer but I’m not a babysitter. I’m not with them 24 hours a day,” he said.
“That’s why we have an RCMP Act that holds them to a higher standard. Police officers must be held to a higher standard in the community.”
Steve Roberge, executive director of the New Brunswick Police Commission, said he believes the “fairly significant volume” of suspensions is just a coincidence.
“This past year there seems to be a preponderance of disciplinary problems that involve police officers’ criminality. Everything from driving while impaired to assaults of spouses, theft and uttering threats and assaults,” he said.
“On any given day we have 20 to 25 ongoing complaints, but not all of them involving criminality.”
The commission is responsible for investigating complaints involving the nine municipal police forces in the province and their 456 officers.
It is asking the provincial government for 30 changes to the New Brunswick Police Act, including one that could allow chiefs to suspend officers without pay.
But Bob Davidson, executive director of the New Brunswick Police Association, accuses the commission of trying to destroy the balance within the Police Act.
“Over the years of police work some of our people run into marital problems or drinking problems,” he said. “They’re human, and you need to deal with it in a human way, not just fire, fire.”
Roberge said the commission, Department of Public Safety and New Brunswick Community College hope to develop training and retraining courses for police officers dealing with ethics and values.
“It seems odd that we’re having to do this but we’re in a position right now where we’re starting to see that it needs to be done,” Roberge said.
Paul McKenna, a Nova Scotia consultant who works with police forces, said such courses would just be “window dressing” that wouldn’t transform anyone’s behaviour.
Instead, he said the process of trying to weed out people who could be problematic should begin at the point of recruitment.
“There are psychological profiles that landmark on honesty, integrity, and authenticity,” he said.
The municipal police force in Saint John — the largest in the province with 140 members — had no officers suspended or fired in the past year.
However, the force did come under scrutiny during the trial of Dennis Oland in the murder of his father, businessman Richard Oland.
Evidence during the trial suggested a number of problems with the investigation, prompting the Saint John Board of Police Commissioners to ask the provincial police commission to conduct an inquiry.
The commission is also investigating an allegation that when Saint John deputy chief Glen McCloskey was an inspector, he asked an officer not to tell the Oland trial that he had been in the crime scene.
McCloskey denied the allegation when he testified.