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Thunder Bay police chief vows to rebuild eroding trust after ex-chief arrested

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Criminal charges against the former Thunder Bay police chief and other high-ranking members have sown further doubt in the credibility of the embattled force in northern Ontario, its current leaders acknowledged Monday as they vowed to rebuild confidence in the service.

Chief Darcy Fleury and police board chair Karen Machado held a joint press conference to address last week's arrests of ex-chief Sylvie Hauth and the service's former in-house lawyer in an ongoing misconduct investigation.

"The criminal allegations brought forward by the Ontario Provincial Police are deeply disturbing," Machado said. "I understand how these allegations have caused further doubts in these institutions and the system of policing and police oversight in Thunder Bay."

Machado vowed to act on any allegations of misconduct and ensure oversight is held to the "highest standards."

"We are here today to send a strong message that the alleged incidents of the past are not a reflection of the work that is occurring today," she said.

Chief Darcy Fleury, a former veteran RCMP officer brought in last year after Hauth's resignation, said his team is committed to rebuild trust and provide fair policing to the community.

"I acknowledge the erosion of trust in our service by some residents, and I'm inspired by the communities' desire to move forward together," he said. "We're on a healing journey."

Leaders of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation said, however, that the police chief and board chair had "failed to acknowledge the seriousness of the situation."

"Despite numerous reports, nothing has happened to enhance the public's trust in the TBPS. In fact, the Thunder Bay public, and especially Indigenous people, now have even more reason not to trust the police," Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler and Deputy Grand Chief Anna Betty Achneepineskum wrote in a statement for the organization that represents 49 First Nations.

Scathing oversight reports dating back to 2018 have documented systemic racism in the Thunder Bay police force and outlined how investigations into the sudden deaths of Indigenous people have been tainted by racist attitudes and stereotyping. Several of those investigations were so poorly handled they had to be reinvestigated.

Other reports have noted how allegations of misconduct that previously embroiled the board and police service under Hauth delayed action on the oversight reports' recommendations.

The chief and the current police board, "continue to put the onus on the community to identify and solve systemic issues while failing to acknowledge the trauma experienced by our members and communities who have lost their loved ones without answers or credible investigations," the statement from NAN read.

Hauth and former in-house lawyer Holly Walbourne both face charges of obstruction of justice and breach of trust for allegedly making false statements to the police board and the Ontario Civilian Police Commission.

The commission investigated allegations of misconduct in 2022 and charged Hauth under the Police Service Act for allegedly overseeing an improper criminal investigation into the former police board chair and then allegedly trying to cover up her involvement, but Hauth resigned just before she was set to go before a police oversight tribunal.

The commission also investigated claims Walbourne had colluded with Hauth in their responses, but the allegations were deemed unsubstantiated. The criminal charges now filed against Walbourne include allegations she made false or misleading statements to the external counsel who conducted the commission's investigation.

As part of the same misconduct investigation, OPP in December charged officer Michael Dimini with two counts of assault, and one count each of breach of trust and obstruction of justice for alleged offences taking place in 2014, 2016 and 2020.

None of the allegations have been tested in court.

As the OPP and the civilian police commission began to investigate allegations of misconduct under Hauth in 2022, an administrator was appointed to helm the police board. In a report of his own, administrator Malcolm Mercer said much of what had led to the "current situation" had to do with a 2019 promotion of Dimini.

His report said the promotion of Dimini had been ascribed to favouritism and unfairness on the part of Hauth and Walbourne, allegations both denied.

The report also notes the board chair, former Fort William First Nation chief Georjann Morriseau, believed the investigation into her conduct was retaliation for matters brought to the board, including Dimini's promotion.

The "broader impact," Mercer wrote, was that the work of the police board had suffered after two years of distraction and diversion. He wrote that there had been an "unacceptable delay" in paying attention to and advancing the recommendations of the oversight reports documenting systemic racism in the force.

Meanwhile, some police officers had filed human rights complaints alleging retaliation from Walbourne and Hauth when they raised concerns about Dimini's alleged misconduct. The claims, which have not been tested, allege Hauth and Walbourne had a personal relationship with Dimini and allegedly covered up allegations of professional and criminal misconduct on his behalf.

A lawyer who represented those officers briefly interrupted the press conference Monday and accused the chief and board of continuing to defend the force against the complaints.

Afterwards, the police chief said "some of the processes are delayed" given criminal charges had been filed.

"Once that's all done, we'll take a look at where we are and make a determination of what needs to be done next."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 15, 2024.

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