In Depth

Women detail sexual harassment allegations at heart of WRPS class action lawsuit

In an interview on CBC K-W's The Morning Edition, Angelina Rivers and Sharon Zehr detail on-the-job discrimination and harassment while working as officers with the Waterloo Regional Police Service.

‘It’s completely shattered my life as a whole. My career is destroyed.’

Angelina Rivers, left, and Sharon Zehr spoke with Craig Norris, host of CBC K-W's The Morning Edition, about the sexual harassment and gender discrimination they say they faced as members of Waterloo Regional Police. (CBC)

Angelina Rivers believes women should be able to take on any career they want.

But the constable with Waterloo Regional Police – who is currently on leave – says if her daughters said they wanted to become police officers, "I would probably never sleep again."

Rivers is one of two women who claim they were subjected to discrimination because of their gender as well as on-the-job sexual harassment and abuse. Rivers and Sharon Zehr, along with Zehr's husband Barry, have launched a class action lawsuit seeking a total of $167 million in damages from the Waterloo Regional Police Services Board and Waterloo Regional Police Association.

The class action is for female officers who feel they have also been discriminated against or harassed, as well as their families.

Both Rivers and Sharon Zehr spoke with CBC K-W's The Morning Edition host Craig Norris about their experiences.

"I can say definitively that there isn't a single aspect of my life that hasn't been affected by how I was mistreated at the service," Rivers said in the interview that aired Friday morning.

"It's completely shattered my life as a whole. My career is destroyed."

Police Chief Bryan Larkin said in a statement Thursday the force will defend itself against the allegations.

The statement from WRPS added the force "does not condone or tolerate any form of discrimination or harassment in the workplace." 

None of the accusations in the class action lawsuit have been proven in court.

Listen to Friday's interview with Angelina Rivers, Sharon Zehr and lawyer Doug Elliott:

'Embarrassed and shocked'

Rivers said her first experience with sexual harassment was while she was a recruit in training at the Ontario Police College.

Const. Angelina Rivers joined Waterloo Regional Police in 2006. She is currently on leave from the force.
"I was hit on by a very senior male officer who was very well respected. I was embarrassed and shocked. I told no one because I was certain it was a one off and I was the only one," she said during the interview on The Morning Edition.

"My experience to date now would suggest otherwise."

Rivers has been an officer with Waterloo Regional Police since December 2006. In the lawsuit's statement of claim, it notes she enjoyed her early years on the force and "took every opportunity to showcase her ability."

Six years later, in November 2012, she moved to "a very coveted mentorship position" in the drug unit.

In April 2013, Rivers said her work environment "significantly changed and became hostile."

She said some male officers made unwanted sexual advances, or they would ignore her or refuse to acknowledge her. Rumours were spread about her having an affair with a colleague. They would refer to her as a "girl" and comment on her competence.

Male officers refused to provide her with back-up when she was dispatched to a dangerous situation and when she told her superiors about her safety concerns, "male officers warned her to be careful about how she treated people or she would get her 'ass kicked,'" the statement of claim alleges.

Texts from superior officer

A superior officer allegedly sent her text messages saying he was "naked and drunk" and requested naked photos of Rivers.

When she complained, she said her work was questioned, and her written reports on cases were sent back to her with notes telling her revise them, even though that hadn't happened before.

She said superiors also asked her to account for every minute of her shift, including time spent in the washroom.

I told no one because I was certain it was a one-off and I was the only one.- Const. Angelina Rivers

"On the days during her menstruation cycle, Ms. Rivers was forced to account for and explain the extra time she spent in the washrooms, which subjected Ms. Rivers to further humiliation and degradation," the statement of claim said.

The superior officer was found to have acted with discreditable conduct, but when Rivers moved to the force's crime management team, but the same superior who had sent her text messages about naked photos again became her superior officer.

She claims the harassment continued. She received more sexually inappropriate text messages, was kept socially and physically isolated and was singled out for errors that she said her male counterparts also made, but their errors were overlooked.

Rivers said in August 2015, she launched an internal complaint with the force's human resources department. The investigation was completed in August 2016. Rivers said she's never received the results of the investigation.

CBC News contacted the lawyer who led the investigation, Lauren Bernardi, who said the investigation was confidential and she was unable to discuss it. 

Rivers told The Morning Edition she tried to be careful not to offend anyone but also wanted to stand up for herself.

"It's a bit of a tightrope walk," she said.

Harassment from day one

Sharon Zehr served as a cadet and constable for two-and-a-half years and left the force in 1991.

Sharon Zehr served as a cadet and constable with Waterloo Regional Police for two-and-a-half years. She left the force in 1991.
"In terms of the sexual harassment and discrimination, that started the first day I walked in the door," Zehr told The Morning Edition.

She said during her time, she would ask for help to complete projects she was assigned, but those requests would be ignored. She was also denied training opportunities.

She was transferred to Cambridge in October 1988 where she said she faced discrimination and harassment. There were unwanted sexual advances, including a fellow constable who asked her for oral sex.

Her fellow officers made degrading comments, like calling her a "bimbo." One day she found her police hat in a vending machine. In another case, a colleague removed the gas card from her cruiser so she couldn't put fuel in the vehicle. She also said she was rear-ended by another officer, named as Ontario's current assistant deputy minister of Community Safety and Correctional Services, Stephen Beckett, "who simply smiled and waved at her."

It's also alleged Beckett set off firecrackers near Zehr during a call.

In a statement emailed to CBC News, ministry spokesman Brent Ross said, "the ministry supports healthy, safe work environments that are free from harassment and discrimination."

"This is a civil matter between the plaintiffs, the Waterloo Regional Police Services Board and the Waterloo Regional Police Association," Ross said. 

"As this matter is the subject of litigation before the courts, the ministry, and ADM Beckett, will not be commenting."

Unwanted advances

Zehr said she transferred to Kitchener where she and two other officers had to use an old broom closet as a change room.

At a work party, Zehr said she was kissed by a colleague. During a briefing, another officer licked her ear. One another day, five male officers tried to drag her into the men's change room.

"Frightened and unsure what the five men would do to her once inside the privacy of the men's change room, Ms. Zehr grabbed onto the door frame fighting to be freed," the statement of claim said. The men stopped when a staff sergeant ordered them to.

After Zehr gave noticed she was resigning, she said male officers wouldn't come if she called for backup.

"They stopped coming to support me on the road and eventually they decided to pull me off the road and put me on the front desk," Zehr said on The Morning Edition.

Leaving force didn't stop harassment

Zehr left the police force and went to work as an investigator at the Eaton Centre in downtown Kitchener, then as a technologist at Conestoga College and in September 2004 as a special constable at Wilfrid Laurier University. She said the harassment didn't stop once she left Waterloo Regional Police and happened any time she had to interact with the force in these new roles.

She started work at Anselma House in September 2008 and claims officers and a member of the police services board made derogatory statements and laughed at her during a fundraiser in May 2010.

One of the people named in the statement of claim is current Region of Waterloo Chairman Ken Seiling.

"The allegation about myself, I'm hard pressed to understand it. I do not know the lady. In 2010, I was not the chair of the police board as it suggests. My calendar shows that I did not attend any fundraiser for Anselma House," Seiling told CBC News Friday.

"People who know me know that I just don't talk or act that way, so I'm quite surprised by this allegation because I don't believe it ever took place," he said.

Safety concerns prompts move from region

Zehr said she was told in June 2010 two police officers would be joining the board for Women's Crisis Services of Waterloo Region, which oversees Anselma House. In August 2010, she resigned from her position.

When contacted by CBC News, Mary Zilney, CEO of Women's Crisis Services of Waterloo Region, said she had no comment on the class action lawsuit or the claims made by Zehr.

In terms of the sexual harassment and discrimination, that started the first day I walked in the door.- Sharon Zehr, former WRPS constable

Zehr said she tried to remove herself from any interaction with police. But on Feb. 22, 2013, she claims she was attacked by a man at her gym when the man allegedly tried to hit her with a set of dumbbells.

She contacted police and made a report, but despite asking for an update on the case, has never been given one, she said.

"For safety reasons, in December 2015, Ms. Zehr sold her home and moved out of the Waterloo region entirely," the statement of claim said.

'Never acceptable'

Kitchener-Centre MPP Daiene Vernile sat on the province's committee on sexual violence and harassment and called the allegations "very disturbing."

"The claims should be taken seriously. This kind of behaviour is never acceptable in today's workplace," Vernile said in an email to CBC News.

"The current Police Services Act does provide a grievance and arbitration process tied to a collective agreement; however these complainants have chosen a different course of action," Vernile said.

Vernile said there is a process and more information will come out in the proceedings,

But, she noted, "harassment in the workplace should never be tolerated."

with files from Andrea Bellemare, Nicole Riva, Max Leighton