Ryan Tumilty, St. Albert, Alberta (St. Albert Gazette) – As the RCMP commissioner pledges to streamline the force’s disciplinary process, a former St. Albert officer has been off the job, with pay, for nearly two years, despite a criminal conviction, disciplinary charges and a memo questioning his reliability on the stand.
Even with all those apparent black marks, the force has raised the possibility of a departure with an extended severance, funding for his education and a clean service record.
The officer, Const. Peter Downing, worked in both St. Albert and Morinville and remains on administrative leave after a lengthy suspension related to criminal charges of uttering threats. Downing was convicted of those charges last summer and last month lost an appeal.
The RCMP’s disciplinary process has been in the national spotlight, as a string of troublesome cases have hit the headlines. Most recently, an Alberta officer was transferred to British Columbia following misconduct charges related to sexual harassment and drinking on the job. That incident prompted the RCMP commissioner to write an open letter to Canadians promising change.
The concerns about Downing appear to date back years. Before criminal charges were laid against him in July 2010, the Crown prosecutor’s office was already raising questions about Downing’s reliability as a witness.
A November 2009 memo concluded he was an unreliable witness and if his credibility was a central issue, prosecutors should withdraw the charges. Downing provided the memo to the Gazette, because he believes it was written as part of an effort to remove him from the RCMP after he complained about superior officers.
In the memo Crown prosecutor Jeff Morrison assessed Downing as a witness, looking specifically at a Supreme Court case called R. v. McNeil. The case involved an officer in Ontario who testified in a drug case while facing drug-related criminal charges and internal discipline hearings himself.
The court’s decision sets out when prosecutors have to disclose a police officer’s previous misconduct or criminal convictions. After speaking with other prosecutors and reviewing Downing’s files, Morrison concluded Downing was a problem.
“The general consensus amongst prosecutors who have dealt with Downing is one of incompetent zeal,” says the memo. “His motives are not dispassionate; he has a personal agenda inappropriate of an RCMP member, which causes him to overreach.”
Morrison concluded Downing could be reliable, but not consistently.
“This issue is not that he can’t be fair, trustworthy and dispassionate; merely that he is not with sufficient frequency.”
At the end of the document Morrison comes to one conclusion.
“It would in general be imprudent for the Crown to run Downing matters where Downing’s credibility is a central issue and where there is no independent corroboration, whether or not the defence is attuned to the issues highlighted by the McNeil disclosure.”
At the time Morrison wrote the memo, one lawyer had asked for Downing’s McNeil disclosure. The Crown provided it, withdrew the case and Morrison suggested Downing’s name would soon be well known among defence lawyers.
Alberta Justice said the memo is part of the regular work of Crown prosecutors.
“The Crown is obliged, in every case, to ensure reliable and credible evidence is presented to the court,” said justice spokesperson Christine Nardella.
Nardella had little response to why the Crown would only withdraw some of Downing’s cases and not all of them.
“At all stages of the process, the Crown is required to assess whether there is a reasonable likelihood of conviction and whether the prosecution is in the public interest. This includes cases where guilty pleas have been entered.”
Downing says the memo and the later criminal charges both came about because he launched formal complaints against his superiors. He argued the memo comes to the conclusion he is unreliable without citing why.
“It was basically calling me a liar without citing any evidence that I have ever done anything dishonest in my career,” he said.
Downing said his McNeil disclosure, which the Gazette was not able to obtain, includes some poor decisions he made while drinking. He says he was charged, though not convicted after a bar fight with men who recognized him as an officer. He said he was docked two days’ pay for that incident and another two days for another incident when he got into a verbal argument while drinking.
Downing said he is not proud of either incident, but believes he has been appropriately punished and learned his lesson. He admits in those cases, he was entirely at fault.
“It was pretty tough, but I changed my behaviour after that.”
After Morrison wrote the memo, dozens of Downing’s cases were withdrawn, Downing says. He believes many of the cases would have been straightforward convictions.
View the memo here
Downing was first suspended in July 2010, shortly after he was charged with uttering threats. At the trial last summer, Downing’s ex-wife testified he threatened to throw her out the window during a heated argument. But Downing’s lawyer focused on timing, noting the incident was reported months later when police were called for another argument.
He was convicted and handed a nine-month probationary term, but after successfully completing it he was left without a criminal record. The suspension ended last October, but Downing has not returned to work and two charges under the RCMP Act are still outstanding.
Meanwhile, he remains on administrative leave, collecting his full salary.
“I feel guilty about sitting on my butt and collecting money from taxpayers for not providing them a service,” he says of the situation.
Downing’s RCMP Act charges relate to his criminal convictions and accuse him of behaving in a disgraceful manner and bringing discredit to the force. A hearing has not been set.
Downing said the RCMP’s disciplinary process can cut both ways, delaying officers from returning to the force if their superiors don’t want them back.
“You can have the best process in the world and it is going to be to the extent that people faithfully or unfaithfully fulfil their duties,” he said.
In an open letter published last month, RCMP commissioner Bob Paulson stated the force’s process for dealing with “bad apples” needs updating.
“I am trying to run a modern police force with a discipline system that was current 25 years ago,” he wrote.
In addition to the system being dated, he said it is also cumbersome.
“Some discipline cases are bogged down in an administratively burdensome and bureaucratic decision-making process. It is not unusual for a case to be on the books for years,” he said. “It’s unsatisfactory that we have to continue spending your tax dollars to pay individuals that don’t deserve to be in the RCMP.”
Downing believes his troubles began when he crossed swords with then St. Albert detachment commander Insp. Warren Dosko and other supervisors. Downing says he was concerned his fellow officers were overstressed. When he raised those concerns, he alleges he was met with hostility. He filed formal complaints.
“They were never seeking discipline against me until I went and filed a complaint against them,” Downing said.
Dosko declined to comment on Downing, citing Downing’s complaints and the internal RCMP investigation they have prompted. Those complaints are outstanding, but Dosko has not been suspended and he was promoted recently to superintendent.
Downing’s disciplinary matters may not come to a conclusion or hearing at all, according to emails from the force, which he provided to the Gazette.
Last fall Downing discussed leaving the force. In an email last October, Insp. R.J.L Munro suggests the RCMP is open to negotiating a departure.
“Management will consider granting you some administration leave that could be taken in conjunction with your outstanding annual leave, will give consideration to some financial support, will abandon any disciplinary actions to ensure that any records show that you have voluntarily left the employ of the RCMP in good standing,” the email states.
In another email last month, Munro suggested Downing needed to make a decision quickly, citing possible changes to the RCMP’s policies that could leave them with little “wiggling” room.
A spokesperson for the force confirmed last week that if Downing were to leave the force, he would do so with a clean record, because the RCMP disciplinary process is internal.
“Once a member has left the RCMP and are no longer an employee of the force they are no longer subject to the RCMP Act Code of Conduct or the discipline process,” said Sgt. Julie Gagnon, with the media relations unit in Ottawa.
Gagnon said the RCMP has a process for disclosing formal discipline decisions to other police forces if a former Mountie attempts to move to a different force, but informal discipline decisions are only disclosed with the officer’s permission.
Downing said the fact the RCMP is willing to allow him to leave the force this way suggests they do not truly believe he has the credibility or conduct problems that have been alleged. He said he does not feel comfortable taking the RCMP’s severance offer and wants to return to work.
“It is not a matter of I am going to take my ball and go home, because people are being mean to me,” he said. “I am not going to take, basically a bribe, to get an easy way out.”