This past year was a turbulent one for the Orangeville Police Services (OPS), as the department was criticized for its actions, or perceived inactions, by several members of the public, media and within the force itself.
OPS also found itself the subject of at least one lawsuit, regarding the 2009 intimate femicide of Heidi Ferguson, and a probe by the Special Investigations Unit (SIU).
“It’s been a very busy year for us and sadly there have been some very tragic cases in our town,” chief Joseph Tomei told The Banner when contacted for this article. “Policing is a very difficult job and I believe that our people are working very diligently in maintaining public safety.”
In order to recap 2010, you have to first look at the latter part of the previous year. Heidi Ferguson was murdered that September by her estranged husband, Hugh, who committed suicide soon thereafter.
Claiming police could have done more to protect his sister that night — officers responded to a domestic dispute at her house, but left before Hugh returned with a gun and shot her — Troy Bogner recently filed a lawsuit against OPS.
That suit is still before the courts. He insists the intend of the lawsuit is about learning what happened the night his sister died, as police have provided very scare details.
Less than a year later, Sonia Varaschin was murdered inside her Orangeville home. Her family first learned from The Banner’s website (www.orangeville.com) the woman’s blood-smeared car was discovered abandoned, setting off a then-missing person case, and have repeatedly stated their displeasure with the flow of information from police.
Sonia’s murderer remains at large.
Criticized in this newspaper for remarks he made early in the investigation, Tomei refused to speak with The Banner at one point, but subsequently changed his mind.
In October, the mother of Jeanine Blanchette expressed her dissatisfaction with OPS’ investigation into the disappearance of her daughter and Chantal Dube. Frustrated with police efforts over a three-day period, the family arrived in town to launch their own search party. Within hours, they discovered the bodies of both girls, who committed suicide.
Then, on Nov. 11, 25-year-old Adam Sprague died while in an OPS holding cell. One of his friends was reportedly in the cell near him and tried desperately, and in vain, to get help as he listened to Adam die.
The SIU is investigating, as his family and friends demand answers. A coroner’s inquest is also expected, but hasn’t been formally announced.
“We’re the ones that called the SIU,” Tomei pointed out, later adding, “Part of my job is to maintain discipline and to ensure our people are doing our job. Those that don’t will face the Police Services Act and the repercussions that come from the Police Services Act code of conduct.”
Last month, Sgt. Curtis Rutt filed a request for a Section 25 (1) review of the department and its management, under the Police Services Act.
In his 109-page document — submitted to the police services board, town council, the Ontario Civilian Police Commission and others — Rutt outlined a number of concerns he has with the department’s leadership, cited specific examples of what he believes to be inappropriate behaviour by fellow officers (largely under the direction of superiors), abuses of authority in dealings with the public, inconsistent discipline within the police service, a lack of officer training, outdated policies and procedures, and issues of officer safety.
Responding to Rutt’s claims, Tomei stated he’s confident a review would clear him, and others named in the report, of wrongdoing, stating the accusations are “without merit and unsubstantiated.”
The status of Rutt’s request isn’t known at this time. During its most recent meeting, on Dec. 13, Orangeville council went into closed session to discuss a personnel matter involving an “identifiable” member of the police department.
Afterwards, in open session, town clerk Cheryl Johns said council approved a motion “directing staff and the mayor proceed as directed in the closed meeting.”
Three separate matters were discussed during the closed session. At one point, Tomei was called into the council chambers, but there’s no public record of what was being discussed at that point in the meeting.
“It has been challenging,” Mayor Rob Adams, a member of the Orangeville Police Services Board, told The Banner, referring to the situations police found themselves in during 2010.
“These things happen from time to time. It’s never a good thing. That said, I think on the whole we have a very good force and we have some people who are very dedicated to police services and do a terrific job. We shouldn’t let a few circumstances or individuals taint that.”