Just when things appeared to be looking up for sheriff’s officers in this province, they are once again feeling abandoned by the government. And if something isn’t done soon, they say their safety and the safety of everyone at court could be jeopardized.
Their concerns centre around low staffing levels at courts, particularly in St. John’s.
“It’s just unbelievable how short-staffed we are,” one officer, who didn’t wanted to be named for fear of retribution, told The Telegram Thursday.
“Safety is being compromised. … If there’s a problem, there’s no one to come running or to help for backup.”
Last year, the office — along with the Crown’s office and Legal Aid — was the subject of cutbacks, with the number of sheriff’s officers cut drastically.
But backlash from staff, NAPE and legal experts prompted the government of Newfoundland and Labrador to backtrack on those cuts.
Government then ordered independent reviews, which were launched in June 2013. It said the goal was to make the Sheriff’s Office a more stable and effective work environment.
The examination of the Sheriff’s Office was led by Leigh DesRoches, a retired RCMP inspector.
It was completed in December 2013, but wasn’t released until months later.
The long delay didn’t sit well with officers and the union, and sparked NAPE president Carol Furlong to publicly call on the minister to release the findings
When it was finally released in March of this year, then-justice minister Darin King said the government accepted all recommendations and that over the next three years, $6.4 million will go to the Sheriff’s Office.
“Our ultimate goal is for a more effective and efficient organization that provides for a safe and secure environment for citizens, the judiciary and all court participants,” King said at the time.
Several of the recommendations focused on improving staffing levels. It stated the office should have 35 officers in St. John’s — which would increase the number by nine.
However, sheriff’s officers say those positions have not been added and that the only extra staff they have are employed on a call-in basis.
“We had a deal and it was all lies,” the sheriff’s officer said. “They had this review staging and they gave everyone the impression we were getting more staff, but there’s been no change.
“Another broken promise.”
Seeing a sheriff’s officer in courtrooms in the capital city is rare these days, unless they are escorting inmates from the holding cells.
“I can’t believe they’ve let it get to this point,” another sheriff’s officer said, who also asked not to be named for the same reason.
“It was all just lip service.”
The officer said if on-call staff wanted to be rehired, they will have to through a hiring process which could take months.
When The Telegram asked to speak to Justice Minister Terry French, spokesman Luke Joyce replied with an emailed statement.
“We take the security of our courts seriously and we will be using Mr. DesRoches’ report as a guide to strengthening the Sheriff’s Office over the next few years,” it stated.
“I should point out though that the review of the Sheriff’s Office was released just two months ago and while all 16 recommendations were accepted by the Department of Justice, implementation does take time. Having said that, considerable work has already been done and we are eager to get the work completed.”
With regard to staffing specifically, the statement indicated the recruitment process to fill the new positions has begun and the government aims to have people in place in the next few months.
“Once the jobs have been filled, we will see significant benefits to our court security program …
“In the meantime, we still avail of the on-call lists when necessary to ensure that we have an acceptable number of officers on duty at all times in our courts.”
A sheriff’s officer says those numbers are far from acceptable, an that a few months or a few years is too long to wait.
“All the time we’re waiting, safety is being compromised. I don’t think government realizes the importance of this,” the second officer said.
“Until they’re ready to do something, government will have to be held responsible if anyone is hurt or killed.”