‘Code of silence’ violated employer’s trust: Board

Corrections officers who tried to cover up assault of inmate irreparably damaged trust necessary for job
By Jeffrey R. Smith
|Canadian Employment Law Today|Last Updated: 01/08/2009

The Ontario Crown Employees Grievance Settlement Board has upheld the firings of two correctional officers and denied reinstatement of a third because of their involvement in a cover-up of the beating of an inmate at an Ontario jail.

On Oct. 18, 2002, an inmate at the Hamilton Wentworth Detention Centre swung a sock containing a hard plastic cup at a correctional officer, hitting the officer in the head. The inmate was handcuffed and escorted to an interview room after the incident. However, between the time he was led into the interview room and when he was taken to a segregation cell he was beaten, suffering several injuries including a large cut on his head and a swollen right eye.

Inmate was struck in interview room and elevator

Ten correctional officers who were involved in the incident were suspended with pay while an investigation took place. During the investigation, three officers who witnessed the altercation came forward and explained what happened.

One officer, Paul Gillis, had led the inmate into the interview room, according to the witnesses. There were several officers in the room and many said the inmate was yelling and struggling. The inmate went down and three other officers, Jason Meadows, Rene Beaulieu and Paul Van Kuren, helped restrain him. The four restraining officers all said nothing else happened in the interview room, but the witnesses said Gillis, Meadows and Van Kuren punched and kicked him.

The inmate was escorted to an elevator where the witnesses said he was pushed into the back, causing his head to hit the wall. They also said Gillis, Meadows and Van Kuren continued to hit him, though the inmate was not resisting. One of them said Beaulieu may have also struck the inmate but wasn’t sure. The officers all denied the inmate was hit in the elevator.

Officers deemed to have used excessive force

In late May 2003, the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services (CSC) determined Gillis, Meadows, Beaulieu and Van Kuren used excessive force on the inmate and then lied about it to investigators and filed inadequate reports. They were also charged with assault causing bodily harm.

On July 11, 2003, CSC discharged the four officers for being “grossly negligent” in their duties as correctional officers, failing to meet CSC standards for behaviour and ethics, and being dishonest and deceitful in their reports and in the investigation. Other officers involved who also tried to cover up the events were given 15-day disciplinary suspensions. The four discharged officers filed grievances for unjust dismissal.

Conviction of one officer hurt credibility of others’ denials

Van Kuren withdrew his grievance after he pled guilty to the assault charge in May 2006. He admitted he punched the inmate and agreed with the witnesses’ account of the incident.

The board found there was “clear and compelling” evidence, including photographs and the testimony of officers and medical staff, the inmate suffered injuries consistent with being beaten.

Van Kuren’s conviction, the board said, must also be considered conclusive evidence the inmate was beaten. The Crown Employees Collective Bargaining Act, the board said, requires any criminal conviction for a matter that resulted in discipline or dismissal be taken as proof the employee committed the act. Since Van Kuren’s admission was consistent with the reports of witnesses, it called into question the denials of the other three.

“The primary significance of (Van Kuren’s plea and conviction) is that it completely undermines the credibility of (the other three),” the board said. “Their testimony that they saw and heard nothing can only be characterized as untruthful.”

Code of silence among officers

The board found there was a “code of silence” among correctional officers regarding the misconduct of colleagues. Further evidence of this, the board found, was when the three witnesses who came forward faced repurcussions, including threats and vandalism of their vehicles, creating a poisoned work environment.

The board said correctional officers need to support each other in their work environment but this support went too far when it protected officers who abused their position.

The evidence showed Gillis and Meadows struck the inmate while he was restrained and compliant, which constituted excessive force, the board said. Though not always just cause for dismissal, the board found, combined with their continued dishonesty and lack of remorse, it violated their duties and trust as correctional officers seriously enough to warrant dismissal.

“There is no question (Gillis and Meadows) knew what was expected of them by the employer and had received training on the use of force and their responsibilities to inmates,” the board said. “They knew what they did was wrong, which led to their continual efforts to cover up what occurred.”

There wasn’t sufficient evidence to prove Beaulieu assaulted the inmate and the board found dismissal wasn’t warranted. However, because he participated in the attempt to cover up the facts, he destroyed the trust necessary to be a correctional officer. As a result, CSC couldn’t be expected to reinstate him and instead was ordered to give him damages in lieu.

“I find no confidence that Beaulieu has learned anything from what occurred, nor do I have any confidence that he would act differently in the future if reinstated,” the board said. “The trust that was broken by Beaulieu’s actions is not reparable.”

For more information see:

O.P.S.E.U. v. Ontario (Ministry of Community Safety & Correctional Services), 2008 CarswellOnt 6734 (Ont. C.E.G.S.B.).