Former officers suing Ontario police service alleging gender-based discrimination
Michelle McQuigge, The Canadian Press
Published Thursday, June 1, 2017 12:37PM EDT
Last Updated Thursday, June 1, 2017 4:33PM EDT
TORONTO -- Members of a southern Ontario police force are accused of wide-ranging sexism in a proposed class action lawsuit containing allegations of gender-based bullying, violence and sexual misconduct.
The suit, which is seeking more than $165 million on behalf of all past and present female members of the Waterloo Regional Police Service and their families, alleges women on staff have been subjected to unwanted sexual advances, career sabotage and personal attacks during their time on the force.
The Waterloo Police Services Board said it views the proposed class action as "inappropriate" and said it will challenge the suit, while noting that the Police Services Act would have been "the appropriate means to deal with the allegations."
None of the allegations have been tested in court.
The suit names both the Waterloo Regional Police Services Board and Waterloo Regional Police Association as defendants.
The suit, filed on Wednesday, alleges that long-standing negligence and disregard for emotional distress in the force resulted in widespread institutional discrimination based on gender.
According to a statement of claim, the two lead plaintiffs in the case allege the sexist culture dates back as far as the late 1980s.
Waterloo Police Chief Bryan Larkin said some of the allegations have only just come to the attention of the force. Others, he said, have already been dealt with through an investigation by an independent law firm.
The statement of claim alleges the police force is mired in a culture that both allows and condones verbal, physical and sexual attacks against its female staff.
"The WRPS and the WRPA perpetrated the systemic and institutional gender-based discrimination and harassment, sexual harassment and sexual assault, by failing to properly punish the wrongdoers and deter the insidious behaviour," it alleges.
"In many cases, they promoted and rewarded the wrongdoers in face of the wrongful conduct, all of which served to force the victims into isolation, subjected them to further trauma, and, in many cases, catapulted the victims towards an early departure from their chosen careers."
The statement contains detailed allegations from present-day employee Angelina Rivers, and Sharon Zehr, who worked on the force for 2.5 years starting in 1988. Both women have agreed to be named as representative plaintiffs in the class action.
Rivers said her career began auspiciously in 2006 and that she enjoyed several years in a positive work environment, but alleges things began to change in 2013.
She alleges male officers began refusing to provide her backup when in dangerous situations and she would "get her ass kicked" if she persisted in reporting her safety concerns.
Male officers began circulating rumours that she was having an affair with a fellow officer, prompting her immediate superior to send her sexually explicit texts in the middle of the night, Rivers alleges.
Those texts stated that Rivers should have pursued a sexual relationship with her boss instead and contained open requests for naked pictures of Rivers, the statement alleges.
When she persisted in speaking up, Rivers alleges her superiors reassigned her to an undesirable position and began forcing her to account for every minute she spent on the job, including time used for washroom breaks.
Rivers ultimately filed a formal complaint, prompting the force to hire a lawyer to investigate her allegations.
According to the statement of claim, the lawyer found that Rivers was sexually harassed and that superior officers openly admitted to trying to protect her alleged harasser.
Rivers has now taken the matter before the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario.
According to Zehr's account, numerous officers allegedly sexually harassed or assaulted her during her tenure on the force.
The statement of claim alleges one officer drove her to a remote area and demanded oral sex.
Zehr reported the incident, but was later paired with the same officer on patrol while the force took no steps to address her complaint, the statement alleges.
Different officers allegedly licked her earlobe during a briefing, tried to kiss her at a work party, and undid her bikini top while she was helping out at a summer cleanup.
On another occasion, Zehr alleges five different officers tried to forcibly drag her into a men's changing room. She said she grabbed onto a door and asked to be left alone, but alleges the men only stopped when a superior officer asked them to.
She further alleges acts of bullying, accusing officers of removing key equipment from her police vehicle, setting alarms to prank her, and rear-ending her car on purpose.
The statement said Zehr ultimately left the force, but continued to feel traumatized when her future security-related positions brought her into contact with officers from the force.
"The constant exposure to gender-based discrimination and harassment, sexual harassment and sexual assault, combined with the discriminatory and degrading culture created by the male members of the WRPS greatly impacted Ms. Zehr's mental and physical health," the statement said. "For safety reasons, in December 2015, Ms. Zehr sold her home and moved out of the Waterloo Region entirely."