How does a police force decide what to do when active officers face criminal charges?

The family of an Indigenous woman who died while in police custody is questioning why two police officers facing charges in her death are still on active duty.

2 Ontario officers charged after a woman died in police custody

Two police officers in Ontario remain on active duty after being charged in connection with the death of a woman in 2016. (Canadian Press)

The family of an Indigenous woman who died while in police custody is questioning why two police officers facing charges in her death are still on active duty. 

Ontario's Special Investigations Unit charged two police officers Thursday in connection with 39-year-old Debra Chrisjohn's death.

Chrisjohn was arrested in London on Sept. 7, 2016, after reports of a woman disturbing traffic in the city's east end. She was arrested by London police and transferred to the Elgin County OPP detachment on an outstanding warrant. 

Paramedics took Chrisjohn to a hospital in St. Thomas where she later died. 

Her cause of death has not been released. 

OPP Const. Mark McKillop and London police Const. Nicholas Doering are facing charges of criminal negligence causing death and failing to provide the necessaries of life.

Both officers are still on active duty.

A lawyer for Chrisjohn's family said they are disappointed in the decision. 

"The family overwhelmingly does not believe that officers who are being charged with these type of offences should be on the street and still acting on that role, whatsoever," said lawyer Caitlyn Kasper.

The London police have placed Doering in an administrative role. The Elgin County OPP said that McKillop remains on active duty. 

"The administrative is the more appropriate response," said Kasper. "But in terms of an active officer that's completely inappropriate."

How the decision is made

Murray Faulkner, a retired London police chief, did not comment on this specific case but explained to CBC News how a police force determines what action to take when an officer faces criminal charges. 

"The decision solely lines within the hands of the chief of police," which for the OPP would be the commissioner or high-ranking officer, said Faulkner.

Faulkner said that the police force would conduct a parallel investigation into the conduct of the officers while the SIU investigates the incident.

A report is filed to the chief of police separate from the SIU investigation, and it's up to the chief to decide what steps to take.

Faulkner said there are three options:

  • Suspending an officer with pay.
  • Placing an officer on administrative leave.
  • Keeping the officer on active street duty.

Ontario does not have legislation to suspend an officer without pay. 

Problem-filled process

The internal investigation is done parallel to the SIU investigation, and some detachments have concerns with how the process is handled.

"This whole practice has been filled with tension and filled with problems," said Ronald Bains, executive director of the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police.

Bains said that the SIU investigations need to be completed quicker and with more transparency. 

Last March Justice Michael Tulloch released a report about Ontario's three police watchdogs, including the SIU. 

The report contains 129 recommendations to make police watchdogs more transparent and accountable. Four of his recommendations have been implemented.

"We are in support of the vast majority of Justice Tulloch's recommendations," said Bains.

"If those recommendations are implemented, some of the issues — or most of the issues — would be resolved."

"I think the major issue is the lack of confidence and trust that everyone has … because the whole process is not very transparent," said Bains. 

He said that he believes the SIU investigations are done competently.  

"One of the major recommendations that Justice Tulloch is making is that those reports in the large part need to be made available to the public," said Bains.