Women claim workplace sexual assault, harassment in $167M lawsuit against Waterloo Regional Police

Two women - one a former constable, one a current officer - say they were subjected to harassment and abuse by male colleagues and superiors while working for Waterloo Regional Police Services.

Two women say they were subjected to harassment and abuse by male colleagues, superiors

Two female police officers have launched a class action lawsuit against Waterloo Regional Police Service. They claim they were subjected to systemic and institutional gender-based discrimination and harassment, sexual harassment and sexual assault on the job. The allegations have not been proven in court. (Colin Butler/CBC)

Two women have filed a $167-million class action lawsuit against the Waterloo Regional Police Services board and police association claiming they experienced systemic and institutional gender-based discrimination and harassment on the job.

The women — a former constable and a current officer with the force on leave — are seeking $100 million for general and aggravated damages and $50 million for exemplary damages. As part of the same suit, the families of the officers are seeking damages of $17 million, bringing the total to $167 million. 

Const. Angelina Rivers and Sharon Zehr allege they were subjected to harassment and abuse by male colleagues and superiors.

Rivers, who started working as a constable with WRPS in 2006 and is still employed by the force but is currently on leave, said she was sent sexually inappropriate text messages and pictures from a direct supervisor.

"Policing is very sexualized environment. There was a lot of quote-on-quote locker room banter. The greatest difficulty I had was with senior officers, officers who had power and control to influence my career, would proposition me," Rivers told CBC News. 

She said minor errors she made were blown out of proportion while mistakes by her male colleagues were swept under the rug.

"When I tried to address the issues I was facing internally, I was dismissed and ridiculed at every turn," Rivers said in a release about the lawsuit.

"I am participating in this lawsuit so that my daughters, or any woman who wants to pursue a career in law enforcement, can do so without facing the kind of systemic harassment, discrimination and abuse that I faced."

Lawsuit could bring change

Zehr said she served with the force for two-and-a-half years. She is not currently a police officer.

She claimed on her first day of work, she was told by two male officers they did not want her or any women on the force and she said her sergeant wrote a negative and "fictitious" report on her performance and told her "quit or get fired."

On one occasion, she said five male officers attempted to drag her against her will into a men's change room. In the statement of claim, she alleges in October 1988, a male constable drove her to a remote area and asked her to perform oral sex on him.

"The injustices I faced at the hands of men whose job it was to uphold public justice have shaken my belief in the police system to its core."

The working conditions forced her to quit and move out of Waterloo region because she was concerned for her safety, Zehr said.

"I also had incidents where I didn't receive any backup, closer towards the end of my career there because I had given notice, and that's when they stopped coming to support me on the road and eventually they decided to pull me off the road and to put me on the front desk," she told CBC News

Lawyer Doug Elliott of Cambridge LLP said the lawsuit could "force real change and make things better for those facing institutional injustice."

'The injustices I faced at the hands of men whose job it was to uphold public justice have shaken my belief in the police system to its core,' Sharon Zehrs said about the lawsuit. (Mathieu Simard/CBC)

Class action for female officers, families

The class action lawsuit is seeking $100 million in general and aggravated damages for those who join the lawsuit, $50 million for punitive and exemplary damages.

As well, the associated family class suit is seeking general damages of $10 million, special damages of $5 million and punitive damages of $2 million.

The family class is being represented by Zehr's husband, Barry Zehr. He was a superintendent who worked in the force's human resources department and is now retired.

He said he raised the concerns of officers, but was ignored.

"The actions of these men also impacted the families, friends and communities of the officers," Barry Zehr said. "Our family continues to deal with the trauma they inflicted to this day."

The case was filed in Brampton Superior Court on Tuesday. The plaintiffs in the case are also asking that any trial also take place in Brampton.

The plaintiffs have filed in Brampton because neither is comfortable in the Waterloo region anymore, according to Anika Christie, the director of communications for Grosso McCarthy, and spokeswoman for the plaintiffs. 

None of the allegations in the class action suit have been proven in court.

'Class action is inappropriate'

In a statement, Police Chief Bryan Larkin said the force is taking the allegations seriously.

"Some of the allegations attributed by the plaintiffs date back to 1988 and those have only just come to the attention of our service," Larkin said. "Some were already the subject of an investigation by an independent law firm and dealt with appropriately."

Police board chairman Tom Galloway said the board is committed to diversity, inclusion and equity.

The release said lawyers for the police force would be "challenging the complete lack of jurisdiction to bring this claim" and if necessary, will defend the allegations.

"We take the position that the class action is inappropriate," the release from the force said. "The Police Services Act provides for a grievance/arbitration system pursuant to the collective agreement and would have been the appropriate means to deal with the allegations."

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

with files from Nicole Riva