THUNDER BAY – A police officer has filed a human rights complaint against senior leadership of the Thunder Bay Police Service, alleging he was targeted for reprisals after flagging concerns about the conduct of a superior officer.
It’s part of a much larger pattern, said Thunder Bay lawyer Chantelle Bryson, who represents Const. Kerry Dunning in the case.
Bryson has filed four complaints with the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal against police leadership in recent weeks, with chief Sylvie Hauth and the Thunder Bay Police Services Board named in several, along with other senior staff.
That includes one on behalf of Georjann Morriseau, a current member and former chair of the Thunder Bay Police Services Board.
Bryson has approval to file three more complaints on behalf of current and former police officers and others, she said, adding other potential complainants continue to come forward.
It adds up to evidence of a crisis of leadership within the TBPS, Bryson said. Ultimately, she plans to ask Ontario’s Solicitor General to step in to review the service.
“People are incredibly fearful to come forward, but they’re coming forward with complaints,” she said. “The common theme is the desire for change and to put a stop to what they all feel is abuse of authority and at times in some of the complaints, cover-up of what could be misconduct under the Police Services Act, and potentially criminal conduct by certain individuals.”
The HRTO has not yet confirmed whether it will accept the cases, though Bryson said she’s “very confident” it will. None of the claims made in the complaints have been tested in court.
Officer says he witnessed illegal search
Dunning said his troubles began late last year, after he went to police leadership with a complaint that a superior officer had ordered an illegal search that resulted in charges being laid against a local resident.
Dunning had served with the TBPS since 2003 without being the subject of a Police Services Act investigation before reporting the incident. Afterwards, he said police administration levied three complaints under the Act against him in the span of about two months.
While he admits a level of wrongdoing in some of the cases, he’s convinced he was targeted for punishment in retaliation for speaking out against a senior officer.
Dunning was one of several officers called to a Westfort residence to recover suspected stolen goods on Nov. 24, 2020.
A man had called police after finding items that were stolen from his garage listed on Kijiji, and officers accompanied the man to an appointment with the seller.
According to Dunning, the seller claimed she had no knowledge the items were stolen property, and volunteered to return those in her possession. The seller’s partner was known to police, who had a warrant for his arrest, Dunning said, but she claimed he was not home at the time.
That left police with no reasonable grounds to enter or search the residence, Dunning believes.
He was taken aback when a sergeant normally assigned to the north side of the city showed up at the scene. More importantly, Dunning said, the sergeant was the son-in-law of the victim of the alleged theft.
“He had no reason to be there, and he knows the complainants are his family – he should have just stayed away from it,” he said.
Instead, the sergeant ordered officers to enter the residence, over objections from the resident.
“She goes, ‘Don’t you need a warrant?’ and I’m thinking, ‘Yup, we absolutely need a warrant,’” Dunning said.
A search of the apartment turned up the man police had a warrant for, two other occupants, and suspected illicit drugs.
Dunning said he raised his concerns over what he considered an illegal search with a watch commander when asked to file charges against the female resident.
“I said, ‘I’m getting ready to do an arrest file for an illegal entry, an illegal search, and an illegal arrest,’” he said.
The TBPS opted to pursue the charges over his objections, but all were later dropped by the Crown, he said.
Dunning called it a highly unusual and upsetting incident, saying he’d never been directed to conduct a search he thought was illegal over nearly 20 years with the force.
“There’s no way any sergeant should be telling you to break the law,” he said. “If I go into your house without an authority, it’s break and enter. If I use too much force on you, it’s assault. That was, in my opinion, break and enter… not only [that], he violated her Charter rights – that’s a big deal. That’s the way I look at it.”
He wasn’t the only one to see it that way, according to a letter from one of Dunning’s superiors that Bryson said would be included as evidence in his human rights complaint.
Dunning “was one of four officers who came forward and reported breaches of the Police Services Act and Criminal Code violations against a Uniform Patrol supervisor” in connection with the incident, the letter states.
Reached for comment Thursday, TBPS communications director Chris Adams said the sergeant’s actions were the subject of a separate Police Services Act investigation that included a “thorough examination of all the facts and issues.”
Dunning said he was never interviewed, and to his knowledge, neither were the other officers who witnessed the incident.
Police wouldn’t comment on how many witnesses were interviewed in the investigation or what the outcome was.
“The matter has now concluded and pursuant to the Police Services Act, is an internal employment matter,” Adams said, citing confidentiality provisions under the Act and other provincial legislation.
Dunning said he believes the sergeant in question is being protected by police leadership, citing another incident in which officer concerns over his behaviour were seemingly dismissed.
“He was involved in an incident where he had a cell phone [and] it was discovered that cell phone was leaking information to the Thunder Bay Courthouse guy,” Dunning claimed, referring to a local blogger. “Nothing was done to [the sergeant], but the two guys that reported it got kicked out of that specialty unit, [and] they had Police Services Act charges brought on them.”
Bryson said the incident showed the TBPS was intently focused on investigating minor wrongdoing on the part of some officers, while ignoring more serious offenses elsewhere.
“This [cell phone] leak was allegedly the focal point of an ongoing investigation of who is leaking to Courthouse Inside Edition from inside the police,” she said.
Charges seen as retribution
Dunning faced three Police Services Act investigations into his conduct in the months following his complaints about the search he considered illegal.
The first was for not responding to a call from a fellow officer that had come earlier on the same day, Nov. 24, 2020. Dunning considers it a frivolous complaint, saying the officer was not in distress, and that he was on a call regarding another police matter at the time.
That charge was ultimately dropped, he said.
The second complaint came on Jan. 5, 2021, when Dunning was cited for not wearing a mask while driving in a police cruiser with another officer. He was ultimately docked four hours’ pay for the incident.
Dunning acknowledges it was a mistake, but said it came on the first day of a new mask directive, and directly after responding to a traumatic incident.
At the time they were observed without masks, he and his partner were returning from the scene of an accident in which a man sustained serious injuries after being pinned under heavy machinery. Dunning knew the injured man as the child of a colleague, and said he was personally involved in assisting him and talking with family members.
That version of events is corroborated in the letter from a superior, who provided a character reference during the Police Services Act investigations into Dunning’s conduct.
Finally, Dunning faced a third complaint under the Police Services Act for advising a homeowner and off-duty police officer that police were on their way to a party taking place in violation of a provincial stay-at-home order.
He pleaded guilty to discreditable conduct, while a second charge of breach of confidence was withdrawn in the plea. He forfeit 60 hours of paid work over the incident.
Internal disputes over punishment
Dunning wasn’t the only one who saw the complaints against him as retribution for raising concerns about his superior officer.
The superior who wrote a character reference for Dunning said the constable was being “punished with a sledgehammer rather than a more appropriate form of discipline.”
Another superior officer wrote in a letter that he believed Dunning was being unfairly singled out.
"Last year [Dunning] brought forward concerns he witnessed while working," the officer wrote. "Shortly after that several incidents occurred while he was on duty which resulted in internal investigations directed toward him. I suspect that he was targeted as a result of the concern he expressed."
Speaking for the TBPS, Adams said progressive discipline had always been used in Dunning's case, but that police were again limited by confidentiality provisions in the in the Police Services Act and the Municipal Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act.