Police officer denied promotion because of race, hearing told

The lawyer for a veteran Ottawa police officer who claims he's been repeatedly passed over for promotion because of his ethnicity says it's "not acceptable" that there are so few visible minorities among the force's highest ranks.

Lawyer for Insp. Samir Bhatnagar takes aim at lack of diversity on Ottawa force

Ottawa police Insp. Samir Bhatnagar claims he's been overlooked for promotion because of his ethnicity. (Kimberley Molina/CBC)

The lawyer for a veteran Ottawa police officer who claims he's been repeatedly passed over for promotion because of his ethnicity says it's "not acceptable" that there are so few visible minorities among the force's highest ranks.

Paul Champ made the remark Tuesday during opening arguments at a Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario hearing into a November 2017 complaint by Insp. Samir Bhatnagar, an Ottawa police officer for 27 years. 

We believe… race is a factor.— Paul Champ, lawyer for Insp. Samir Bhatnagar

Bhatnagar, who describes himself in tribunal documents as "brown skinned and of East Indian origin," claims he's been denied promotion to superintendent despite garnering exemplary reviews and meeting all the Ottawa Police Service's criteria.

"It's not acceptable in the city of Ottawa, in the entire 160-year history of the Ottawa police, to have practically no visible minorities at the rank of superintendent or above," Champ told CBC News. 

The police chief has a lot of power.— Sen. Vern White

Champ said Bhatnagar has been a top-scoring candidate who has the support of both the rank and file and police brass, including superintendents, deputy chiefs and Sen. Vern White, a former Ottawa police chief.

White preceded Chief Charles Bordeleau, who took over the role in March 2012, around the same time Bhatnagar became eligible to apply for promotion to superintendent. 

"Our question is, why is an officer like this not promoted? We believe it's because race is a factor," Champ said. 

Bright, hardworking, dedicated 

White, the only witness to testify Tuesday, said he expected Bhatnagar to make superintendent by 2015 and compete for a deputy chief post by 2019, and expressed surprise he hadn't moved up the ranks more quickly.

White characterized Bhatnagar as a bright, hardworking and dedicated officer who always exceeded expectations and was one of only five officers White once nominated for a special RCMP training program.

Sen. Vern White, a former Ottawa police chief, testified he was surprised Bhatnagar hadn't risen more quickly through the ranks. (Kimberley Molina/CBC)

But Bhatnagar was also challenging, White said, because he challenged traditional methods and "never held back" if he had a concern.

White also acknowledged the chief has final say on who rises to the upper ranks, and who doesn't.

"At the end of the day, the decision-making process ends with the chief," he told the one-person tribunal. "The police chief has a lot of power." 

White said during his time as chief, no visible minorities were promoted to upper ranks because he didn't believe there were any suitable candidates. White said he did sometimes promote officers with whom he didn't personally get along.

Others promoted

Champ pointed to 10 other officers who have been promoted ahead of Bhatnagar since 2012, despite scoring lower during the qualification process.

"What [the police force's lawyers] are saying is that the chief doesn't like him and the chief should have the right to choose the people that he likes," Champ claimed. 

Deputy chief Uday Jaswal, who was promoted in the summer, is the only visible minority to also reach or pass the rank of superintendent. 

"It's not a defence to racism to say, 'Look, we promoted one person of colour,'" Champ told CBC News. "That's like saying, 'Well I've got a black friend, therefore I can't be racist.'"

Const. Khoa Hoang became an Ottawa police officer in 2007. In a human rights complaint, Hoang alleges he was bullied and denied promotion because of his race. (Supplied)

Bhatnagar is seeking promotion to the rank of superintendent retroactive to March 2012, along with back pay of more than $100,000 plus $40,000 in general damages due to the harm he claims to have suffered by being overlooked.

He also wants the tribunal to order Ottawa police to change how superintendents are selected, forcing the chief to take into account objective scoring.

The Ottawa Police Service denies Bhatnagar has been passed up because of his race. His complaint is one of four alleging racial discrimination by the force. 

'Not an issue'

"It's frankly absurd to suggest that the chief of police or his leadership would make decisions based on somebody's skin colour. It doesn't happen. It didn't happen," said Jock Climie, who's representing Ottawa police in each of the four cases, told CBC. 

Instead, he blamed the longstanding trend of police forces across the country being staffed predominantly with white men. It can take decades for officers to reach the highest ranks, Climie said.

Ottawa police have been working on better reflecting the community they serve, he said.

Climie rejected Bhatnagar's claim that he was overlooked because of his ethnicity.

"There is not an issue. There's certainly not a legal issue. There's certainly not a human rights issue from what I've seen."

The case is expected to last up to 10 days of hearings. The next hearing date is scheduled for May 29, about a dozen witnesses will be called.