Durham police officer demoted for ‘deplorable’ behaviour in Whitby discreditable conduct hearing

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Published February 16, 2023 at 12:44 pm

A Durham Regional Police officer has been demoted for her “deplorable behaviour” in making speeches disparaging her service and fellow officer and for an in-uniform video in support of the so-called Freedom Convoy in Ottawa last February.

The reprimand issued to Cst. Erin Howard arises from a newly released full report on Howard’s disciplinary hearing, during which she was initially charged with three counts of discreditable conduct, two counts of breach of confidence and one count of insubordination.

The charges stemmed from incidents stretching back to Nov. 7, 2021. Between then and Jan. 24, 2022, Howard attended a rally in Toronto and identified herself as an off-duty officer. 

Per the report, Howard spoke to the crowd via microphone about “how the COVID19 mandates put into place violates the oath she swore to.” The report then describes her making “disparaging comments” about Durham Police. “Our colleagues, a lot of them appear to be brainwashed. Our services appear to be so influenced by politics and the fear of economic reprisal that they have completely backed down. They have capitulated.”

“For some reason they are not supporting us. And it’s wrong, and I am ashamed, and I feel that my badge, my brand-new badge that I was so proud to receive, has been tarnished,” she told the rally.

The comments “jeopardized the integrity and reputation of the police service and could bring discredit upon it,” the report found. They were recorded and posted online, prompting media reports and numerous complaints to Durham Police.

On Jan. 24, 2022, Howard posted a video in support of the Freedom Convoy, then en route to Ottawa. She was on police time, in her police uniform and her police car in the video.

“I really want to give a big shout out to all the truckers. I think what you guys are doing is incredible,” Howard said in the video, “You’re fighting for our rights and freedoms. Right now, it feels like we’re a little bit at war and those rights and freedom are at stake.”

Howard notes in the video that she was “thrilled and honoured” to join the convoy in Ottawa, where she was set to speak.

The convoy arrived in Ottawa a few days later, quickly evolving into a full-scale occupation of the city. The convoy remained in the capitol for three weeks, incessantly honking their horns, obstructing traffic and vandalizing national monuments.

Ultimately, police from across Ontario had to be brought in to contain the participants. More than 400 criminal charges were filed and Ottawa estimated the convoy cost some $30 million in policing and clean-up costs. The federal government used the extra powers of the Emergencies Act for the first time to disperse the convoy after three weeks.

Immediately after Howard posted her video in support, Durham Police received “thousands” of media calls, social media comments, and questions, the report declared. “Divisional units received numerous phone calls, and Chief [Todd] Rollauer received over 500 emails regarding the unprofessional comments and platform Constable Howard made while wearing a police uniform.”

Three people also complained directly to the Office of the Independent Police Review Director, one of whom requested Howard’s firing.

After her video began to spread, Durham announced an investigation into her behaviour, filing the charges on March 25, 2022. Over the following months, Howard attended several hearings, which were marked by protests in solidarity with her. 

In May 2022, Howard and her husband, fellow officer Cst. Clay Harnum, were spotted in Peterborough with members of the anti-vax group Hold Fast, which had recently made headlines for mobbing and harassing NDP leader Jagmeet Singh at a campaign stop.

Additionally, Harnum was himself found guilty of discreditable conduct after making an Instagram post in support of Howard days after she posted her video. “Freedom of Speech is essential. Please show your support for Constable Erin Howard. Email: [Durham Police Chief Rollauer’s email address]. Let them know you stand with Erin,” read the caption.

Harnum pled guilty to the charge and had his pay docked by 60 hours. “The lack of an apology or an acknowledgement of wrongdoing is troubling. I am not sure that Constable Harnum recognizes the seriousness of his actions,” wrote adjudicator M.P.B. Elbers.

Howard also pled guilty to one charge of discreditable conduct on Dec. 4. Case adjudicator Greg Walton noted Howard had a “largely positive” if “average” work history during her four years with the service.

Additionally, Walton found the fact that Howard had directly addressed the public and identified herself as an officer, coupled with the assumption that the public “has an interest in ensuring police officers maintain a high standard of conduct,” meant an “appropriate sanction from the employer” was required.

Finally, the nature of Howard’s conduct drew specific attention. Walton found Howard had used “powerful language which clearly damaged the reputation of all police services in Ontario.”

I find Constable Howard’s comments offensive to all serving police officers and to those in the community who strived to adhere to and support the mandates,” Walton wrote.“I find Constable Howard’s behaviour deplorable; she encouraged and supported unlawful behaviour. Constable Howard’s comments undermined police services’ efforts of ensuring the safety and security of all persons in Ontario and beyond.”

Given these reasons and Howard’s plea and heeding a joint recommendation from the prosecution and the defence, Walton decided Howard would be demoted from first-class constable to second-class constable for three months. 

I would have supported a more severe penalty had that been suggested or had there been a guilty finding without a joint position on penalty,” Walton noted.

The three-month ban took effect in December.

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