While the Chief’s Away, the Force Stays Mum

Cape Breton Regional Police Chief Peter McIsaac during Monday's General Committee meeting discussion of cannabis policy.

Cape Breton Regional Police Chief Peter McIsaac during a General Committee meeting discussion of cannabis policy.

Peter McIsaac, chief of the Cape Breton Regional Police Services, has been on medical leave for at least six weeks.

CBRPS spokesperson Desiree Magnus told me in a September 10 email:

The Chief is currently off for medical reasons.

But she did not respond to an email asking how long he’d been off.

When I asked again about McIsaac’s status on October 21, Magnus replied by email:

The Chief is currently off for medical reasons.

I sent a followup email asking why she was refusing to say how long the chief has been on leave but as of press time, I have received no reply.

According to Constable Greg Livingstone, one of three CBRPS officers (the others being Sgt Jerome Kelly and his wife, Constable Roberta Kelly) fired in March 2019 and reinstated last week after a Nova Scotia police review board hearing, McIsaac did not appear at the hearing, nor did the “disciplinary authority” in the case, the officer who determined, “on the balance of probabilities,” said Livingstone, that all three accused were guilty, despite two RCMP investigations clearing them.

Livingstone said the board was told that both men were on medical leave.



I googled “police chief medical leave” and was inundated with reports about one particular chief  — U. Reneé Hall of Dallas — who went on medical leave on 10 July 2019. The leave was announced on 17 July 2019, when the police department issued a press release saying she was recovering from “major surgery.” The city manager — the chief’s direct boss – would not say when she would return to work, prompting one journalist — Jim Schutze, a columnist with the Dallas Observer, to take drastic measures:

Well, I think I just submitted the dumbest open records request of my 100-year career as a journalist. I sent it to the city. This was a tough decision. I swore I would not do this. Then I did it. My open records request was, “Where is the police chief?”

I’m tempted to follow Schutze’s example, although it has to be said that the situation in Dallas — which has experienced a spike in homicides this year, including a high-profile murder involving a police officer — is such as to make the disappearance of the police chief particularly concerning.

Dallas’ city manager finally announced (on 21 August 2019) that Hall would return to work the following Monday, ending what another Observer reporter called a “six-weeks running municipal mystery.”

Still, the citizens of Dallas knew, however belatedly, that their police chief was not on the job. And Dallas is not the only North American municipality that feels its police chief’s work status is a matter of public interest, which is why I am able to tell you that Burlington, Vermont Police Chief Brandon del Pozo went “on a Family and Medical Leave of Absence” back in August 2019. The mayor of Burlington announced the chief’s leave (without revealing why he was away) and named an acting chief. Del Pozo returned to work on 18 September 2019.

And I can tell you that on 23 April 2019, the police services board in Brockville, Ontario, announced that Police Chief Scott Fraser was off work on sick leave. The board chair wouldn’t reveal details about the chief’s illness, but did say it was a “medical issue” and “not major.” The police board named Fraser’s temporary replacement and by 23 May 2019 (according to Twitter), Fraser was back on the job.

On 18 November 2018, the mayor of Shreveport, Louisiana announced that Police Chief Alan Crump was going on medical leave (although there was some confusion as to whether he was taking medical leave or retiring). The local TV station seems to have been very interested in the mayor’s status, noting that this was not the first time the chief had been on medical leave and naming the officer who would act as “substitute chief.” Crump retired in July 2019 and the substitute chief became the actual chief.

In April 2018, Oak Park, Illinois Police Chief Anthony Ambrose went on medical leave, announcing in early May that he was in need of a liver transplant. By June he had received a new liver, but at the end of August he retired to focus on “getting well.” I can tell you all that because it was all made public.


Public interest

I think, personally, it’s reasonable for citizens to want to know why their police chief is on medical leave, but in this case, I will settle for knowing how long he’s been off and perhaps (dare I ask) when he’ll be back.

At a bare minimum, the force should have been pro-active in announcing his absence. We know, for example, that two of our councilors — Ray Paruch and Clarence Prince — are on medical leave receiving treatment for cancer. If it’s considered necessary to tell the public that municipal councilors, who have no role in the day-to-day running of the CBRM, are off the job, shouldn’t it also be necessary to tell the public that the head of their 200+ police service is off the job?

The question of police absenteeism made headlines earlier this year, when the authors of the CBRM Viability Study questioned the size of the CBRM’s police force (which is big by per capita Canadian standards). Deputy Chief Robert Walsh told the CBC first, that our large force was responsible for declining crime rates and then, that it was necessary because:

At any given time, currently we have between 30 and 40 members off. I can tell you that they are legitimately off, that it’s indicative of an aging police service.

Gordie MacDougall, CBRM’s director of HR, told the CBC that Cape Breton officers are off the job fewer days per year than most (11 compared to a national average of 12.2). But I don’t think that’s the relevant statistic here — Cape Breton officers may be off, on average, fewer days per year than most Canadian police officers, but how does the percentage of officers off at any given time (roughly 20%) compare to the national average?

Do Cape Breton police officers have particularly stressful jobs? It’s possible, I know that just because they’re not working in a high-crime area doesn’t mean police officers don’t have stressful jobs. They are asked to deal with all the social problems — addiction, mental illness, homelessness — that we, as a society, have chosen not to address. Do they abuse sick leave? I’m sure some do — what organization doesn’t have some abuse? Is something that hasn’t even occurred to me behind the absenteeism figures? Isn’t it time we found out?

With any luck, this study into “police staffing” commissioned by the CBRM will provide some answers.

With a little more luck, they’ll be good answers.

And with something approaching a full-on miracle, they’ll be good answers the municipality will act on.

In the meantime, the CBRM should tell us what’s happening with the chief of police.