Cop corruption trial raises questions about 'pathetic' and 'startling' Hamilton police practices

For weeks, lawyers inside a Toronto courtroom have been asking questions about Hamilton police's practices — and their findings paint a picture of a service with glaring issues.

Critics say problems could put prosecutions at risk, and raise questions of oversight

CBC News requested an interview with Police Chief Eric Girt to ask questions about the police service and its practices that arose during Hamilton police officer Craig Ruthowsky's trial. He denied that request. (Adam Carter/CBC)

For weeks, lawyers inside a Toronto courtroom have been asking questions about Hamilton police's practices — and their findings paint a picture of a service with some glaring issues.

Testimony and evidence at Det. Const. Craig Ruthowsky's corruption trial have alleged in-fighting in parts of the service, as well as sloppiness, disregard for proper procedure and corrupt practices. 

It means the trial has taken on importance beyond his guilt or innocence, raising questions about the service itself.

The trial's jury has heard about off-the-books dealings with confidential informants so baffling they've even left the judge shaking his head and calling what he's heard "startling."

The jury was told all about poor control of evidence, calling into question continuity, which is vital for trials moving through the legal system. It's something so egregious, the Crown called it "pathetic" in open court.

The jurors have even heard about a major feud between the service's guns and gangs unit and its vice and drug unit — the very units at the forefront of two of the biggest issues facing the city: an opioid crisis that's killing record numbers of people in the city, and combating a rise in gun violence across many areas of the city.

Then there's the casual mentions of corruption and mismanagement throughout the trial, from misappropriated cash at crime scenes to hydroponic pot growing equipment being given back, or sold back, to the city's drug dealers at auction, after it was seized at crime scenes.

I have a feeling a lot of it is negligence and failing to follow procedures.- Ingrid Grant, defence lawyer

The incidents come on top of several other police scandals in recent years that hint at similar issues and practices: The guns and gangs officer who was convicted in a gun-planting scheme, an officer who shot himself as he was under investigation for an inappropriate sexual relationship with a source on a high profile case, and the ACTION unit's "complacency" and "laziness" in writing tickets that targeted Hamilton's disenfranchised.

Critics say problems uncovered at this trial could put prosecutions at risk, and raise questions of supervision and oversight in some of Hamilton police's most important units.

Ruthowsky, left, leaves court with his lawyer, Greg Lafontaine. (Adam Carter/CBC)

But one veteran former police officer, who now teaches policing, cautioned against allowing the trial evidence to taint the entire service and the many dedicated officers who work there.

Ruthowsky, 44, is accused of selling police secrets and protection for monthly payments of $20,000 from a crew of drug dealers. He was arrested after being caught on police wiretaps as part of a massive Toronto police guns and gangs investigation called "Project Pharaoh."

The 17-year-veteran of Hamilton police has pleaded not guilty in Superior Court in Toronto to charges of bribery, attempting to obstruct justice, trafficking cocaine, criminal breach of trust, and conspiring to traffic marijuana. The jury began deliberations Monday after a six-week trial.

Questions raised 

CBC News requested an interview with police chief Eric Girt to address the issues raised by the trial. He declined, saying the Ruthowsky matter is "still before the courts" — although many of the issues raised don't relate directly to Ruthowsky's guilt or innocence, but instead to Hamilton police practices.

"Chief Girt will release a statement at the appropriate time," police spokesperson Const. Jerome Stewart said in an email. He did not say when "the appropriate time" would be.

Similarly, Coun. Lloyd Ferguson, the chair of the city's police board, declined to answer questions about these issues. He did call Ruthowsky the "poster child of suspension without pay," as Ruthowsky was still paid over $104,000 last year while off the job — something he said was "unacceptable to taxpayers."

Ferguson said he met with Girt and the police service's lawyer to discuss questions posed by CBC Hamilton, and they concluded they can't speak about anything that is before the courts or a police act tribunal.

Coun. Lloyd Ferguson is the head of Hamilton's police board. He said he couldn't talk about the issues raised at trial until all the investigations into Ruthowsky's conduct are done.

"Once these avenues are exhausted then I will bring the issues you raised and possibly others to the board for consideration," Ferguson wrote in an email. 

Ruthowsky's proceedings on both criminal and police act charges aren't expected to finish for years.

The questions CBC hoped to get answered include:

  • Does Hamilton police have an oversight problem?
  • Do feuds still exist between specialized police units, and what's being done to fix that?
  • How has the service addressed concerns about its rules for signing up informants?
  • How has the service addressed the revelation that officers routinely bypass and ignore those rules? 
  • Has the service addressed problems with how evidence is handled by the guns and gangs squad?
  • Does the service still allow drug paraphernalia and growing equipment to be sold back to dealers?
  • Was the service aware of the issues and practices heard about in the trial before the trial began?
  • How can the service reassure the public it is addressing issues heard about in the trial?

A ramshackle evidence 'locker'

The Crown didn't mince words about Hamilton police during Ruthowsky's trial. Assistant Crown attorney John Pollard even went so far as to call evidence tracking at one undercover police station "pathetic."

Court heard several times during the trial about the guns and gangs unit's "undercover" unmarked detachment on Hamilton Mountain. Both Ruthowsky and other officers have testified that seized property evidence wasn't catalogued there as it normally would be.

It's unclear if any Hamilton police units are still operating out of this decommissioned building on the Mountain. (Google)

Ruthowsky testified that guns, hundreds of thousands of dollars, thousands of grams of cocaine, and other seized evidence just sat in a couple of jail cells in the decommissioned building, instead of in locked storage lockers where they could be properly catalogued. That's how it usually works in a police station.

"The situation with property at the [guns and gangs unit's headquarters] was pathetic, correct?" Pollard asked Ruthowsky, during his cross-examination.

"It wasn't very good," Ruthowsky agreed.

Other officers gave similar testimony. Sgt. Ryan Moore said the building felt condemned. He worked there for five years, and said there was no cleaning staff, no garbage pickup — not even any stationery.

"There were no lockers to properly catalogue or store evidence?" Ruthowsky's lawyer, Greg Lafontaine, asked Moore.

"I would describe the area that we had for that as inappropriate," he responded.

Lafontaine questions his client, Craig Ruthowsky. Ruthowsky is facing charges including cocaine trafficking and bribery in Superior Court in Toronto. Justice Robert Clark and Assistant Crown Attorney John Pollard look on. (Pam Davies/CBC)

So why is this a problem? Evidence is still under a lock and key at a police station, right?

Defence lawyer Ingrid Grant told CBC News that a situation like this one can lead to appeals of convictions, as the Crown in any given case has to know where evidence was — and who handled it — every step of the way.

"If you have a case in the system that involves these officers or this division, of course [a defence lawyer would] look at it very carefully," she said. "You're going to see if you can make something out of this."

She said these practices could be linked to pure laziness, or "something more nefarious," where "officers who have an inclination to do something dishonest" are able to gain access to exhibits that aren't theirs.

"I have a feeling a lot of it is negligence and failing to follow procedures," she said.

It's unclear if the guns and gangs unit is still operating out of the old Mountain police station location at Upper Wellington Street and Inverness Avenue East, or if the evidence housing issues there have been resolved.

The secret world of confidential informants

They key issue in Ruthowsky's trial stemmed from how he dealt with people he claimed were his confidential informants. Ruthowsky testified that he totally sidestepped police procedure, and created his own system for tracking interactions with his informants. 

"I started to do that based on information from supervisors who were doing it the same way," Ruthowsky testified. This practice helped open the prosecution's case in the trial, as there were no records of the dealer who was the Crown's key witness in Ruthowsky's informant notebooks.

Ruthowsky, and other officers, testified that Hamilton police's system for dealing with confidential sources at the time was at best cumbersome, and at worst, completely broken. The service's informant policy changed just before Ruthowsky was suspended. It's not clear from the trial how extensively it was changed, and whether that addressed the issues raised in court.

That update actually stems from another case of cop corruption — a data breach caused by Rick Wills, court heard. He's a former Hamilton police officer who was jailed for having a city accountant cut cheques for him on an account full of seized drug money between 1998 and 2006.

The jury heard all informants are supposed to be "registered" by a central Hamilton police office. That way they can be marked as credible, and become eligible for things like cash payouts in exchange for legitimate information.

But to register an informant, a cop would need the person's full name, date of birth and address, as well as a list of all their criminal convictions, charges and warrants.

Several current Hamilton police officers have testified at Ruthowsky's trial. (CBC)

Sgt. James Paterson testified that officers were afraid to register informants because of an intelligence breach linked to Wills.

Moore said the registering process was "cumbersome and slow," and added that in the amount of time it took to register someone as an informant, their usefulness could have come and gone.

Ruthowsky, in his testimony, referred to the process of registering informants as "a backwards, non-productive way to do things."

"It was a waste of time that I could have used in other areas," he said.

At one point during the trial when the jury was out of the room, Justice Robert Clark said he found much of Ruthowsky's evidence "startling" — including how informants were handled.

"I can't imagine that's standard practice anywhere, really," Clark said.

Cases tossed after Ruthowsky's suspension

Ruthowsky's case also raises issues with other trials moving through the courts. Investigations he has worked on have reportedly been tossed after his suspension.

"A bunch of different charges were stayed because they weren't prosecutable anymore," Ruthowsky's lawyer Greg Lafontaine said in court. Hamilton police did not answer questions to confirm this.

Det .  Const . Ruthowsky worked in a unit where it seemed productivity and speed were the only governing principle.- John Pollard, assistant Crown attorney

Grant said that even if Ruthowsky ends up being acquitted, he's going to have question marks hanging over him for a long time — and that will affect his viability as a witness.

"If he still has cases outstanding where he did something important, he may still have to be a witness, and he would be quite vulnerable to people questioning his reliability and credibility," she said.

"[The Crown] is going to look at whether they have a reasonable prospect of conviction anymore, if he's the main witness or he's uncorroberated." 

It's unclear exactly how many cases involving Ruthowsky have been thrown out, and what the nature of those charges were.

An ongoing feud

The trial also brought to light a persistent and ongoing feud between two of the service's most important units: guns and gangs and the drug squad.

Multiple officers testified that it was an issue.

Paterson said that during his time there, the six-person unit guns and gangs unit felt it was "doing more than the entire drug unit, which had 20 or 25 people in it."

"The rift between our drug unit and our gang unit was pretty bad at that time," he said.

Former Hamilton police chief Glenn De Caire was the head of the service while Ruthowsky was actively working there. (Adam Carter/CBC)

It's impossible to know what the situation is like now, as Hamilton police won't answer questions on the issue.

In a video shown to the jury, jailed Hamilton cop Robert Hansen said there was "a general mindset that [the two units] were not working together."

Even the Crown's drug-dealing key witness said he knew about the rift, testifying that Ruthowsky would talk about the issues between the two units, saying that the drug squad was "jealous of him."

Ruthowsky himself, on an intercepted wiretap call with the dealer, added to the discord, saying that then-police chief Glenn de Caire "hates police work" and "hates drug cops."

Ruthowsky has been off on paid suspension since June of 2012. He was paid $104,334 in 2017. (Kelly Bennett/CBC)

Retired police detective Kevin Bryan worked with York Regional Police for 30 years, and now teaches police practices at Seneca College, which covers police oversight and behaviour.

He says in his experience, it's basically unheard of to have two police units feuding with each other like that.

"That sounds poisonous to me," he said.

"To have actually two units trying to one up one another and trying to put the other one down when they get a chance to, and put yourself in a better light — that's pretty uncommon."

'Good policing can be tedious'

Bryan said that some of the issues described in the trial seem to point to an issue with supervision and oversight. He said that can happen when officers in specialized units end up with a friend as their direct superior — which is exactly what happened in Ruthowsky's case.

Court heard that Paterson, who was one of the officers running guns and gangs at the time, was Ruthowsky's best friend.

Ruthowsky spent time as a patrol officer, in the drug unit, the HEAT unit, and the guns and gangs unit. (Hamilton police)

"Sometimes you get in a certain unit, and I'm not going to call it an entitlement, but there's almost a … I think the officers can get a bit big-headed, and they think they can get away with stuff, or sometimes they might not follow the rules to the letter of the law that a young uniform officer or a patrol sergeant who was just promoted would," Bryan said.

"It's almost like as long as the work's getting done at the end of the day, there's no oversight as to how it got done."

Testimony seems to point to exactly that. Paterson said that Ruthowsky produced more than just about anyone else in the unit, and that he didn't push issues with his friend up the chain of command, because he produced so much.

Pollard, in the Crown's closing address, said that the guns and gangs unit seemed like a place where all accountability had vanished.

"Det. Const. Ruthowsky worked in a unit where it seemed productivity and speed were the only governing principle," Pollard said.

"Policing, good policing, can be tedious."

Byran said that trials like these are incredibly frustrating for police officers. The vast majority of cops, he said, are dedicated officers who want to see corrupt cops go down.

"Because the one per cent who are screw ups screw up so badly and screw up so often, it looks like police are screwing up all the time," he said. "It casts bad light on everybody."

adam.carter@cbc.ca

About the Author

Adam Carter

Reporter, CBC Hamilton

Adam Carter is a Newfoundlander who now calls Hamilton home. He enjoys a good story and playing loud music in dank bars. You can follow him on Twitter @AdamCarterCBC or drop him an email at adam.carter@cbc.ca.