'I'm in a much better place': CBRM police chief on sick leave speaks out about his PTSD
Peter McIsaac is leaving the position. He says he wants to help other officers by talking about his experience
Cape Breton Regional Police Chief Peter McIsaac, who has been on sick leave since the summer of 2019, says he has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and will not be returning to work.
"It's a work in progress," he said Friday in an exclusive interview with CBC News. "I'm doing a lot better than I was.
"I'm feeling much better. I'm in a much better place."
He said he wasn't in a great place when he went on sick leave.
"It was something that was happening over a period of a long time and it just hit a point where my wife stepped in and she recognized some of the stuff I was going through and it was time to take care of Peter."
McIsaac's wife, Lydia, is a mental health nurse.
The chief, who is 61, said it was difficult accepting the diagnosis. It was also difficult dealing with bouts of depression and having to leave policing after 35 years on something other than his own terms.
'I didn't realize I was suffering'
He started in 1986 as a patrol officer in the coal-mining town of New Waterford. McIsaac said cops couldn't show any weakness back then.
"I've been suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder for 25 years, they tell me," he said. "I didn't realize I was suffering ... for the many years that I had been, until it hit a point that I sought the treatment and help that I needed so badly, and it was bad.
"It was very disappointing for me. I was very ashamed. For me, I thought this was something that happened to someone else because I considered myself not only physically tough, but I always considered myself mentally tough."
On Tuesday, staff told Cape Breton regional councillors during an in-camera session that McIsaac would not be returning to work and that the municipality would need to post the chief's position internally.
McIsaac said he intended to go back to work for the longest time, but only lately his health-care providers convinced him that was not a good idea.
"I've investigated everything from a barking dog complaint to a double homicide and everything in between, so to think that I would be some type of superhuman individual that wouldn't be affected by this stuff is absolutely ridiculous," he said. "I realize that now."
But that realization was a long time coming. In fact, he said, some of his therapy had to stop because it was too traumatic to deal with all at once.
"I come from an era of policing where you just wouldn't share this stuff because it was considered weak," McIsaac said. "Matter of fact, back in my time when I was hired, you would probably be outcast from the police service, never hired, never be promoted, and you would probably have to move on to another career."
The chief said the police service has much better workplace supports for PTSD than it used to and said he has been getting excellent care.
"I don't know if all doctors operate like this, but I think I've got the best and they've helped me so much that they've probably saved my life."
I'm hoping that by actually talking about it today that others will seek the help that they need and if they don't, I guarantee them it will get worse.- Chief Peter McIsaac
The chief said he considered simply walking away from his job and not talking about his sick leave, but decided he had to speak out.
"I know police officers who I've worked with my whole career are going through this and probably been impacted worse than I have. So I'm hoping that by actually talking about it today that others will seek the help that they need and if they don't, I guarantee them it will get worse."
- For help with PTSD or any other mental health issues, call the Nova Scotia mental health and addictions crisis line anytime at 1-888-429-8167 or you can visit the province's mental health and addictions website.
McIsaac said policing has changed drastically over the span of his 35-year career.
He said New Waterford had a lot of drinking establishments when he started.
"Look, you had miners who worked hard and played hard, and I think cops back then were hired more for their brawn than their intellectual ability and it had to be that way because they had to keep order."
However, within three years, there was a changing of the guard as older officers retired.
McIsaac said he quickly found himself as an acting sergeant and soon there was a crackdown on drinking and driving.
"When I first started ... you took your life in your hands if you were going down Plummer Avenue and within about two years we led the province in the amount of impaired driving cases."
He said policing has come a long way, with more specialized training in forensics and particular aspects of investigations.
McIsaac became Nova Scotia's representative on the national chiefs association and developed relationships with big-city police chiefs across Canada and the U.S.
Those connections brought in outside resources that helped solve the two longstanding, but unrelated, homicides of Harold (Buster) Slaunwhite and Brett MacKinnon, something that is a source of pride for McIsaac.
He said he is also proud of the regional police department's efforts to have the municipality create modern divisional offices by renovating the historic Sydney Mines town hall and building a brand new office in downtown Glace Bay.
He also said creating a strategic plan and implementing the trunk mobile radio system helped modernize the force.
McIsaac was also faced with several challenges during his tenure as chief.
One was the continuing controversy around the death of Clayton Miller, a New Waterford teen who died in 1990 after an outdoor drinking party.
His parents and their supporters have always said police were somehow involved in his death, but the cause has been ruled accidental after several reviews, including one three years ago by the province's Serious Incident Response Team and chief medical examiner.
McIsaac was an officer with the New Waterford department, but was never implicated in the case. Still, he and his family have been accosted by people who believe the death has been covered up.
He said it was simply a tragedy due to a deadly mix of young people, alcohol and cold temperatures.
"You've got to be sympathetic to the family. Anybody who loses a child .. under any circumstances, the grief that any parent must feel, I can't even fathom it.
"However ... that thing has been investigated more than any other thing that I can think of in my policing career, by several other agencies, including the RCMP and the last one was done by SIRT."
Not long after McIsaac went on sick leave, CBRM received a consultant's report on the municipality's long-term viability.
One of the recommendations was to study the efficiency of the police service. The report said the municipality has more police officers per capita than any other similar-sized Canadian jurisdiction.
The efficiency study was commissioned with the help of the acting chief, Robert Walsh, and was due last November, but CBRM staff say it is now expected to be delivered sometime in March.
Walsh and CBRM officials have argued that some of the service's 200 officers are not paid for by the municipality. They are funded by the province's Boots on the Street program, Membertou, the regional centre for education and the RCMP highway patrol.
Officials have also said the police service needs that many officers to cover the large regional municipality, to backfill up to 40 officers who are off sick at any given time, and to keep the crime rate low.
McIsaac said he agrees on both counts.
"Go and ask the union membership right now, do they think they have enough members, because they are working shorthanded just about every day. People are getting burned out. It's probably some of the reasons why some of them are not working.
"And the only reason our number is what it is, is because 30-plus are there because of outside resources or money allocated from somewhere else."
McIsaac said he has one piece of advice for whoever becomes the next chief.
"Don't think it's about you, because it's not. The last person you should think about is yourself. You're going to pay a price for that, but it's about the people that work for you. More importantly, it's about the people that you serve and it's all about community.
"I've probably paid a personal price for it myself, and my family paid a price for it, because there was lots of long hours and days, nights, evenings, weekends and vacations that we forego because of my job, but I can honestly say I gave it every ounce of my energy and ability and my knowledge and experience to try to make this place and our community and our organization better, and I have no regrets and I can walk out the door knowing I left it in good shape."