Internal Ottawa police harassment is troubling: workplace assessment
Law firm conducted 116 interviews with both officer and civilian employees
Ottawa police employees told an independent investigator that police workplace culture continues to penalize them for reporting their colleagues' bad behaviour, that women are sexually objectified and that racialized officers are unfairly scrutinized for the same behaviour of their white counterparts.
The findings come from a workplace assessment jointly commissioned by the police board and police service as part of their efforts to address internal workplace sexual violence and harassment.
Employment law firm Rubin Thomlinson LLP was hired to conduct a pilot project in 2020. That project was first launched in May of that year, just months after one of the service's own deputy chiefs was charged with misconduct for allegations of sexual harassment and unwanted touching. Deputy Chief Uday Jaswal now faces charges related to three female employees.
In addition to the workplace assessment, the project also included the law firm acting as an independent investigator that screened and then investigated harassment complaints within the service. All of the findings detailed in a 76-page report publicly released this week relate to the workplace assessment only.
Rubin Thomlinson was previously hired by the CBC to investigate how it handled allegations made against former CBC employee Jian Ghomeshi.
116 interviews, 25 statements from employees
The firm conducted 116 interviews with both officer and civilian employees of the force and received 25 confidential emailed responses. The service employs approximately 2,200 members, but the report offers no further breakdown of the employees who participated in the survey. The "majority of those interviewed self-selected to participate in the process," interviewers said in the report. Though the firm also acted as an independent investigator at the time of the workplace assessment, no efforts were made to investigate the claims made by the participants in the interviews or to determine if they were true.
"Interviewees described a state of affairs that included sexual violence, harassment, discrimination, and intolerance, as well as a workplace rife with gossip, cliques, and disrespectful behaviour," the report said. "Assuming what we were told is true, the totality of what was described to us is in breach of the OPS's commitment, through its various policies, to provide all its members a respectful workplace that is free from harassment and discrimination."
Women subjected to 'creepy' comments, groped
"Nearly all of the female interviewees reported being subjected to inappropriate sexualized comments and 'banter,' gestures, 'pranks,' and assaults," according to the report.
Women employees gave both historical and present-day examples of sexual harassment and violence, describing anywhere from 11 to 20 incidents as witnessed by other employees including supervisors who the complainants said "either failed to intervene or actively facilitated the behaviour," according to the report.
Interviewees told the workplace assessment of times they "were groped, and subjected to 'creepy' comments, sexualized discussions, and inappropriate messages."
The report gives the example of a man described by interviewees as a "well-known sexual predator" on the force, who women said made sexual comments towards them and sexually assaulted more than one of his female colleagues. That employee has since resigned, according to the report.
Women reported that " OPS failed to take any action until members of the public reported being subjected to this same behaviour by him."
One woman told the firm: "I'm an object. They don't care how smart I am. They don't care about my education level. They don't care about any part of anything I can bring to the table, other than being a sexual object."
Prevalent, too, was a culture of undermining women who were successful in competitions for promotions with a "narrative that they only received the opportunity because of their gender and/or due to providing sexual favours; it was rarely acknowledged that they were the most qualified member for the opportunity."
Overt and covert racial discrimination described
According to the report, "nearly all racialized interviewees reported negative day-to-day experiences and discriminatory treatment at the OPS, ranging from overt to covert." The report did not detail how many racialized employees were interviewed and whether this group included women employees and what effect that had on their experiences.
Racialized employees told the firm that OPS failed to address "two notable instances of racially discriminatory behaviour" — one the creation and circulation of a meme of mostly racialized officers who had faced misconduct, and the other a co-worker at the service driving an Ottawa police vehicle with an anti-Muslim bumper sticker.
Employees said they were subjected to race-based comments, overheard coworkers "mock racialized members with accents, and requesting that such members be transferred from their positions and/or complete additional training," and scrutinized for requesting accommodations for religious purposes.
One racialized member told the firm: "As a minority, if you complain to the wrong person, you're finished."
The workplace assessment found "there was also a perception among some interviewees that the misconduct of racialized members received more scrutiny and discipline when compared with non-racialized members who behaved in a similar, or worse, manner."
Like women interviewees, racialized employees also pointed to a predominantly white male culture they said left little room to build the kind of informal relationships that would lead to mentoring. Women employees with childcare commitments said they couldn't often participate in "wing nights" or after-work drinks, while racialized employees described feeling the same limitations if they didn't drink, play hockey or play golf.
Members of both groups of employees said they had, at times, felt they needed to play along with sexual, gender-based, or race-based, self-deprecating jokes to fit in.
Continued fear of reprisal
Employees complained to the firm of a "toothless" system that failed to hold their peers accountable but continued to punish those who spoke out.
One employee said: "That's why a lot of people don't want to come forward, because they basically get demonized and treated like crap."
Inteviewees told the lawyers that there was a "high social cost" to making a formal complaint about a colleague.
"Doing so often resulted in the dissolution of friendships, romantic partnerships, and overall support systems at the OPS."
The reprisals that employees said they were subjected to included being ostracized in the workplace, having their performance micromanaged by their superiors, being blocked for work transfers or promotions, and being assigned to demeaning or undesirable tasks.
Officers told the interviewers about the inherent safety risk when reporting the behaviour of a colleague who they may have to rely on for back-up on a call.
"We were also told of members experiencing vandalism and threats following the filing of a complaint."
Board and service will implement all recommendations
Rubin Thomlinson has made 18 recommendations to the board and service, which will adopt all of them, board chair Coun. Diane Deans and Chief Peter Sloly said this week.
Those recommendations include creating an internal "office of the workplace investigator" to receive complaints, making sure misconduct investigators and the hearing officers who try disciplinary cases understand human rights and allow employees to file group complaints.
One recommendation is to review all outstanding legal disputes, which includes human rights complaints which have historically been a venue for employees alleging discrimination "and make best efforts to resolve them."
The recommendations also include updating workplace policies and establishing a code of conduct that clearly establishes the expectations for workplace behaviour
"In making the recommendations," Rubin Thomlinson said in the report, "we have considered whether what interviewees have described goes beyond individual subjective experience, particularly because, as we noted at the beginning of this report, most of interviewees self-selected to participate in this process.
"We have asked ourselves whether what we heard are the anecdotal stories of a small group of OPS employees with unhappy experiences, or whether what we heard points to more generalized issues in the workplace.
"Based on the entirety of what we reviewed in this process, and the consistent themes that emerged, we believe it is the latter, not the former."
In a statement this week the service and board said they would work to implement a multi-year "safe workplace action plan."
That plan, Sloly said, "is the next step in our ongoing efforts to prevent these harmful workplace incidents from occurring — to increase member confidence in reporting incidents — to provide improved supports to affected victims/survivors – and — to address all such incidents head on when they do happen."
The program is expected to cost approximately $8.2 million over its first five years of operation, with annual costs projected to decrease year over year.