By Zak Vescera, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter THE TYEE
B.C. Attorney General Niki Sharma is promising more money to fix a chronic shortage of sheriffs that has led to at least 86 court appearances being cancelled or delayed this year.
Sharma says the government is responding to an internal report that painted a damning picture of working conditions, including bullying and sexual harassment for the people who transport prisoners and protect British Columbia’s courts.
That report found a years-old recruitment and retention crisis within the BC Sheriff Service, problems it attributed to low pay, a toxic work environment and ineffective management.
“This understaffing has far-reaching consequences, affecting job satisfaction, staff and courthouse safety, supervisory responsibilities, and the overall well-being of personnel,” said the report, which was conducted by a group of researchers within the ministries of the Attorney General and the Public Safety and Solicitor General.
“If this situation continues unchecked, it could lead to court closures and limited access to justice for British Columbians,” the report said.
Sharma’s office said she was not available for an interview.
In a provided statement, Sharma said government planned to institute “a more competitive pay and benefits framework for sheriffs.” Her office did not say how much more money sheriffs would be paid or what that pay increase might cost.
The government has also since announced a $10,000 retention bonus for sheriffs in B.C., which would cost more than $4 million if all serving sheriffs were to collect.
Observers say problems at the BC Sheriff Service stretch back more than a decade and have been ignored by successive governments.
The BC General Employees’ Union president Stephanie Smith, whose union represents those sheriffs, says failure to fix the problems threatens the integrity of the province’s courts.
“We are seeing burnout. We’re hearing from our members who fear for their own physical safety and the safety of the courts and the justice system,” Smith said.
B.C.’s 550 deputy sheriffs — the official designation — are tasked with protecting judges and other officials, transporting accused persons in custody and otherwise maintaining the safety of the province’s courts. Without them, many court matters can’t proceed.
The 2023 report found 11.7 per cent of deputy sheriffs left their jobs either voluntarily or involuntarily in the 2022-23 fiscal year. More than a fifth of sheriffs under the age of 30 resigned in that same period.
The researchers found more than half of surveyed sheriffs were actively looking for a new job in 2022. They estimated between 40 and 50 per cent of deputy sheriffs already work a second job to make ends meet.
The report found that had led to chronic understaffing and sheriffs reported being forced to cut corners to keep the courts running.
“Staffing shortages have gotten so bad that the wheels have come off the bus and we are driving down the road at 100 miles an hour waiting for the impact,” one sheriff told the investigators.
The biggest issue identified by sheriffs was inadequate pay.
Under their latest collective agreement, deputy sheriffs have a starting salary of about $68,000 and will make $77,000 at the top of the pay scale, five years into their job.
That is far lower than their comparators in other law enforcement careers.
A new police officer in Vancouver, for example, makes nearly $78,000 — more than a sheriff at the top of their pay scale. With overtime, most Vancouver Police Department officers are paid more than $100,000 per year. An RCMP officer at the top of the pay scale makes about $20,000 more than a deputy sheriff.
Many of those police forces are facing their own challenges recruiting new officers. Smith says they’ve begun to target deputy sheriffs for recruitment. Sheriffs, Smith said, enjoy more consistent hours and duties than police, but can’t compete with the rate of pay.
“We lose them very quickly to other policing services,” Smith said.
The 2023 report found recruiting and training a new sheriff takes between six and eight months and costs about $47,000. The high rate of turnover means sheriffs often work far in excess of their scheduled 35-hour work week, Smith said.
In some cases, government has had to pay to move sheriffs between locations to keep the courts running. The Ministry of the Attorney General’s office said it had spent more than $300,000 to provide relief for deputy sheriffs since the start of the 2021-22 fiscal year.
In some cases, court appearances have been delayed, cancelled or moved because a sheriff was not available. The ministry’s office said there had been 86 such incidents this year as of Sept. 7 there were none in 2021 or 2022.
Kyla Lee, a criminal defence lawyer in Vancouver with Acumen Law, says she has had multiple cases where a trial was delayed because a sheriff was not available. She said such delays had a “snowball effect” because they lead to further delays in the court system as matters are rescheduled.
“It’s really caused a lot of chaos for people. The experience of going to court is very stressful for people as it is,” Lee said.
Those problems are not new. In 2017, a Victoria judge freed an accused cocaine trafficker because there was no sheriff available to escort the arrested man from a cell to the courtroom. That year, then-attorney general David Eby instituted a pay bump for deputy sheriffs aimed at easing recruitment issues.
But Lee believes sheriffs are still not paid enough. Sheriffs, she said, often protect judges when there are credible threats to their safety. They are armed and also transport accused persons in custody, she said, who include violent offenders and people with complex mental health and substance issues.
“They have to be mental health professionals. They have to be physical security. They have to be drug addiction and medical experts all at the same time in different courts,” Lee said.
The government’s information sheet for applicants notes sheriffs deal with “unpleasant, upset, hostile, angry and potentially violent clients.”
The 2023 report found sheriffs also contended with a bureaucratic, confrontational work environment where bullying and sexual harassment sometimes appeared to go unchecked.
Investigators received survey responses from more than 200 deputy sheriffs, or more than 40 per cent of the B.C. workforce. They also conducted focus groups across the province that produced more than 400 pages of written notes and interviewed officials within the service and at partner agencies.
What they reported back was a culture of “risk aversion” and an organization that “tends to reward people who criticize and undermine their colleagues rather than those who foster morale and assist others in succeeding.”
For example, deputy sheriffs who work at a provincial court in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside told investigators they had sometimes responded to overdoses near the building. But rather than being lauded for that, the sheriffs said “they receive little positive recognition for their efforts, and some fear they will be reprimanded for trying to save people’s lives.”
Many attributed it to their position within BC Court Services, a branch of the Ministry of Justice, where some sheriffs said they felt they were “the bottom rung” of the organization’s ladder.
Sheriffs in all but one region told investigators they faced bullying and inappropriate behaviour from supervisors, including “making comments that employees found inappropriate, uninvited physical contact of a sexual nature, making threats against employees’ job security and singling employees out for undue discipline.”
The report says many deputy sheriffs also reported dissatisfaction with the BCGEU’s representation of them. Some felt the union, which has more than 85,000 members in B.C., was preoccupied with representing office workers and had not done enough to fight for better pay.
“I would disagree that we don’t represent sheriffs well,” Smith said. She said the BCGEU had advocated to raise sheriff’s wages to the $85,000 to $90,000 salary range, something the 2023 report recommends as a new benchmark salary.
“I know how hard it is to get Treasury Board to agree to something like this. This is not just a single person saying let’s get it done,” she said.
Problems with the sheriff’s service are not new.
In 2008, the BCGEU commissioned Simon Fraser University emeritus professor and criminologist Neil Boyd to do a survey of the service.
His survey identified widespread problems of low job satisfaction fed by low pay, a limited scope of duties and poor management.
He said there were “remarkable similarities” between his findings and the 2023 report.
“Those were all issues identified 15 years ago,” Boyd said.
Smith, whose union has historically been a major donor and supporter of the BC NDP, said she blames the lack of progress on the BC Liberals — now BC United — who were in power from 2001 until to 2017.
Mike de Jong, the BC United justice critic and a former attorney general, defended his party’s record and said the BC NDP had failed to address the issue during their six years in power.
“The situation is getting worse, not better,” de Jong said.
He noted one issue identified in the 2023 report was the monotony of the job — something deputy sheriffs reported had become even worse since the COVID-19 pandemic, when some accused persons began joining court proceedings virtually.
De Jong said B.C. should consider following Alberta’s model, which allows sheriffs to do tasks like serve outstanding warrants, as a way of making the job more interesting.
“You’ve got a group of trained, talented people whose talents are not being fully utilized. And they’re getting bored,” he said.
He said he also supported increasing the pay scale for sheriffs, though he did not say if he agreed it should go as high as the BCGEU and the 2023 report have advocated.
“You’ve got to look at the market and you’ve got to fill those vacancies, and that’s undoubtedly going to require some adjustment upward,” de Jong said.
Boyd expressed some optimism the latest report will be taken seriously, given it comes from within government itself. “It’s not as if this is a report written by a small group of angry former sheriffs,” he said.
He said governments of all stripes have repeatedly ignored issues with the service that have now reached a critical juncture.
“The danger is that if the problems persist with recruitment and retention, you’re going to get a situation where the courts are not functioning properly,” he said.