01/16/2012 05:21 EST | Updated 01/16/2012 05:25 EST

Massive Toronto Police Corruption Trial Begins

Five former Toronto police drug squad officers who were accused of beating and robbing suspects of drugs and large sums of money will go on trial Monday, accused of a conspiracy in which they allegedly falsified official police records to cover their tracks.

The charges against John Schertzer, Ned Maodus, Joe Miched, Ray Pollard and Steve Correia date back to the late 1990s and police drug busts they performed in which the Crown alleges the officers themselves committed a range of offences — from conspiracy to obstruct justice, to theft, assault, perjury and extortion.

The five have all pleaded not guilty and on Monday will face a jury, after more than a decade and $14 million spent on investigations and prosecution in what is the largest case of alleged police corruption in Canadian history.

In addition, between 1999 and 2003, the federal Department of Justice, without any explanation, stayed some 200 criminal cases against accused drug dealers arrested by the officers. Prosecutors did so long before the officers were charged or given a chance to defend themselves against allegations of misconduct.

Lengthy delays affect memories, witnesseses

Six officers were originally charged in January 2004 after a Toronto Police Special Task Force led by a single RCMP chief superintendent spent three years investigating.

In 2008, a trial judge stayed all charges, ruling that delays by the prosecution infringed on the officers’ rights.

But in 2009, Ontario’s Court of Appeal rejected that and ruled a trial should proceed for five of the six officers, noting the complexity of the case. (Charges against Richard Benoit, though, were dismissed.)

Toronto’s former mayor John Sewell, who heads the Toronto Police Accountability Coalition, said prosecutions of alleged police corruption in general can take years, likening them to organized crime trials in which defendants challenge every legal decision and ruling.

“And they just go on and on and on forever,” Sewell told CBC News, “because they hope, or the strategy seems to be, that they can drag things out for long enough that witnesses are going to die, that they’re going to move away, maybe to another continent, people are going to retire, everyone’s going to forget what really happened.”

Indeed, in the Toronto police case headed to court on Monday one witness has died, another has left the country and memories of all involved have no doubt faded.

“Well it’s pretty extraordinary, to say the least," said criminology professor Simon Holdaway. Based in the United Kingdom, Holdaway studied the Toronto Police force extensively throughout the early 2000s. "One expects a public service to be able to sort out and go to trial quickly, and the police being one of, if not the, primary public service,” he said.

“I found it a policing system, in terms of its culture, that was kind of like 15 years behind what was happening in the U.K. It was extraordinary, really,” Holdaway told CBC News, noting that unlike in Canada, in the U.K. all major police forces have dedicated anti-corruption units trained to rapidly deal with allegations of internal wrongdoing.

Accused complain of ‘malicious prosecution’

The five accused have long asserted they are victims of a "witch hunt" within Toronto police and in 2003 several of them launched a $116-million lawsuit alleging "malicious prosecution" and "abuse of process" against the force, its then-chief Julian Fantino, as well as city overseers. The lawsuit remains on the books, awaiting the outcome of the criminal trial.

All but one of the five men set to stand trial have retired from the force, many of them spending many years "suspended with pay" while collecting full benefits.

In November 2007, former Det. Sgt. John Schertzer — who led the group of accused officers who were all members of Team 3 of the TPS Central Field Command drug squad — retired with full pension as he turned 50, with 32 years of service to the force.

Steve Correia, 44, is still on the force but has been suspended while collecting full pay since he was charged criminally in January of 2004.