'Old boys' club': Civilian staff with Lethbridge police allege bullying, harassment, sexism at work

Seventeen current and former Lethbridge Police Service civilian staff, all of whom are women, say their work culture involves bullying, harassment and retaliation against anyone who speaks up.

Lethbridge's police chief says goal is to provide a safe and healthy work environment

Women working as civilian staff allege there has been a history of bullying, harassment, sexism in an 'extremely toxic' workplace at the Lethbridge Police Service. (Joel Dryden/CBC)

Seventeen current and former Lethbridge Police Service civilian staff, all of whom are women, say their work culture involves bullying, harassment and retaliation against anyone who speaks up.

Fifteen of the women voiced their grievances through a formal complaint. Several of those employees told CBC News filing a complaint in 2019 led to further abuse and multiple stress leaves.

Lethbridge Police Chief Shahin Mehdizadeh — who took the top job in 2020 — said in an interview last week that the service is committed to providing a safe and healthy work environment. He said he would not tolerate the sort of behaviour described by the women working at LPS.

Mehdizadeh pointed to a recent hire of Howatt HR, a human resources firm that specializes in psychological health and safety, to conduct a "listening tour" starting this month.

But Mehdizadeh was hesitant to describe the conditions as harassment. Rather, the chief says an investigation of the formal complaint identified "conflict in the workplace."

Civilian staff members who spoke to CBC News have been given pseudonyms so that they can talk openly without fear of professional reprisal.

'Extremely toxic' environment

When Alice retired three years before her planned departure date, it was a financial hit, but one she says she was willing to take after spending more than a decade working in an "extremely toxic" environment under a man she describes as "tyrannical" and "very, very threatening."

After 30 years with the City of Lethbridge — many of them in the records management unit — Alice's last day at LPS was in April 2020.

Leaving early because of harassment and bullying felt like "a kick in the gut" but Alice says it was necessary for her physical and mental health.

"I was very, very tired of always fighting, fighting, fighting to just be able to do my job," said Alice.

'It's about power'

Her biggest issue at LPS was a staff sergeant who she alleges, over the years, accused her of having a mental illness and blackmailed her with a failing performance review he had written. 

The staff sergeant, she says, would slam doors and toss chairs across the room when he was angry.

If Alice, who by then was a supervisor, didn't complete tasks the way the officer demanded, he would become irate.

"It's about power: the overlying thinking is, 'I am an officer, you are a civilian, you are nothing,'" she said.

When Alice retired three years before her planned departure date, it was a financial hit but one she says she was willing to take. (Duk Han Lee/CBC News Graphics)

On several occasions, Alice says she refused to share personal information after he'd dug into her Facebook page. That's when he accused her of having a mental illness.

One day, after an ugly argument, Alice says he marched into the office of the unit's inspector and reported she'd been displaying troubling behaviour, having irrational thoughts and said he was concerned for her mental well-being. 

After that, Alice went on doctor-ordered stress leave once it was discovered she had fluid buildup around her heart from extreme stress.

One September long weekend after she returned to LPS, the staff sergeant secretly created a new unit which took away all of her work, Alice says. She and her co-workers scrambled to find tasks from other units. They felt they'd been set up to fail.

An apology

A few years into the abuse, Alice says she filed a grievance. 

At the end of that process in 2014, there was a finding that Alice had been harassed: she'd won. At that point, Alice says there was a meeting between herself, then-chief Tom McKenzie, a deputy chief and the union president. 

McKenzie offered her an apology and acknowledged the service had "turned a blind eye," says Alice. He also said the situation should have been dealt with sooner.

A letter of reprimand was placed on the staff sergeant's file. He was prohibited from applying for a promotion for three years and ordered to attend counselling. 

Still, Alice continued to work under him.

LPS working on 'change in culture'

The officer was a big problem, Alice says. But the way LPS handled him, she says, was worse. Civilians never come out on top in a dispute that involves an officer, says Alice.

"You will never win if you are a civilian," she said.

"The lowest ranking officer will always be ahead of you. The fact that you are civilian will be your curse for your entire time there. You will never be good enough."

Mehdizadeh says LPS is working on a "change in culture" to address some of those concerns. He says he's met with nearly all civilian staff one-on-one since coming into power.

The chief also says civilian staff were allowed to participate in an employee wellness survey for the first time last year. 

'It's an old boys' club'

There are multiple civilian staff departments within LPS that assist with police operations. 

Civilian members work in units like human resources, records management — where Alice worked — and traffic service. 

In one of these departments, Jane says she's been witness to the sexual harassment of civilian staff on numerous occasions. 

Fed up, Jane told a superior about it.

But he told her not to mention it, saying nothing would be done — and that if she did, she would "make enemies."

Jane found herself being harassed, too. Once, she had a sergeant ponder aloud to her whether he could get suspended with pay should he grab her breasts. 

There was also the time another officer commented on her underwear. Or when an officer told her he always wanted to "go there."

"It's an old boys' club," Jane said.

Lethbridge Police Chief Shahin Mehdizadeh says the service is committed to providing a safe and healthy work environment, adding he would not tolerate the sort of behaviour described by women working as civilian staff. (David Rossiter/The Canadian Press)

Mehdizadeh said sexual harassment complaints are considered "very serious" within LPS, adding that employees should come forward with any allegations.

But the chief also said he is not aware of any formal complaints filed since he arrived in 2020, so Jane's story is "probably maybe something that is very dated."

Over in the records management department, civilian staff say they've felt retaliated against after filing a complaint in 2019.  

That complaint alleges bullying, harassment and gender discrimination. In the complaint, it's alleged that supervisors swore at subordinates and insulted the intelligence of workers, sometimes calling them "stupid" or "childish." 

Multiple workers in the department say they or others have, at one point or another, ended the day crying in their vehicles after leaving work.

6 on stress leave

The department has also seen a mass medical leave, with six people on stress leave at one point, according to staff.

LPS's professional standards unit — tasked with investigating internal and external complaints — took on the 2019 complaint. 

Mehdizadeh said the allegations of harassment within that complaint "were not established."

"We also understood that there was some workplace conflict in that area that we've been fully engaged to try and address and move forward," he said.

This year, in the subsequent months after the response, staff in the department allege that the unit has been set up to fail or look incompetent. 

Two months after the complaint was handled, hours and pay of the staff involved were cut. Multiple staff said the prevailing sense in the department was that those moves were taken as retaliatory measures.

"It feels like you're in a narcissistic relationship," said Susan. "Everything is pushed back onto you to doubt yourself."

Shorter shifts were introduced, which resulted in staff working about 235 days per year instead of 165 — meaning that the unit was working every holiday. With many parents in the department, that led to challenges, including finding child-care.

Civilian members within the Lethbridge Police Service work in units like human resources, records management and traffic service.

Mehdizadeh claimed such allegations of retaliation were "absolutely not true."

He said since he arrived at LPS in mid-2020, certain "performance issues" were identified within the records management unit.

He said managers told him that 12-hour shifts may have been too long for employees.

Mehdizadeh also claimed that there were a "few employees who can't do the function," while others do a "fantastic job with full compliance."

However, when pressed on the high number of employees who signed the 2021 complaint, Mehdizadeh also acknowledged the unit needed more resources.

"This unit is a critical unit in our operation, and they are short-staffed," he said. "That's why, in November, I had a meeting with them and I acknowledged they need more resources. 

"That was my commitment to them that I'm going to try to get a budget from the city to bring more employees on that unit to reduce the stress level and the working environment."

'Devastatingly unjust'

Staff say many were once proud employees of this department. But their continued stress led to them to feel as though the treatment they were receiving wasn't worth it.

Alicia says working in the unit is like being in an abusive relationship.

"You try to follow the correct chain of command but are told it's not true, or they gaslight you to make you believe you are the one with the problem," she says. "They preach mental health but are the first ones to turn a blind eye."

Fifteen members in the department filed a subsequent complaint with LPS in October 2021.

Mehdizadeh said he was unaware of the number of staff who signed the 2021 complaint, adding the human resources firm hired by LPS would examine conflicts that have arisen over the years.

"It is difficult to really compare the civilian employees' work with police officers' but what I can tell you is without our civilian employees, not only our police department, any police department in the country … they can't really survive," he said.

These civilian staff members say they're frightened for what speaking out about their work conditions might mean for their future employment at LPS. 

But for many of these individuals, remaining silent isn't an option anymore, either.

"For the Lethbridge Police Service that is supposed to be a cornerstone and a leader in the community, to attack one of their own that has been working for them for years simply because I was civilian and not a sworn member is absolutely devastatingly unjust," said Alice.