The newest member of the New Westminster police board wants to ensure the police department is taking action to prevent workplace harassment.
Shirley Heafey attended a recent presentation by retired Supreme Court of Canada Justice Michel Bastarache, whose report, Broken Dreams. Broken Lives. The Devastating Effects of Sexual Harassment on Women in the RCMP, was released in November 2020.
“Based on his report, listening to his report, it is an insidious problem that poisons the work environment and causes irreplaceable harm in human terms, and in terms of citizens’ confidence in police services,” she told the police board at its June 15 meeting. “Of course it can cost a lot of taxpayer dollars for legal costs.”
Heafey attended a session that Surrey Mayor Doug McCallum organized for police boards and police chiefs, in an effort to make people aware of the serious problems that can develop if police services turn a blind eye to harassment and sexual harassment.
Bastarache told attendees female officers emphasized how much they loved their jobs and joined the RCMP to help people. They wanted to be heard by the leadership, treated respectfully and treated like professionals, but they were denied these opportunities.
“They experienced, as well, a constant barrage of sexual comments; sexual jokes using references to female body parts; sexual touching; sexual assault; being ridiculed as mini cops, not real cops,” Heafey said. “One female member was told she would never be one of the boys because could not play hockey with the boys. Most of the women said they lived in fear of their male colleagues on a daily basis. It’s hard to imagine but that is what they all said. They feared reprisal if they reported the inappropriate treatment they were subjected to. They feared their male colleagues would not have their back if they were in a dangerous situation and needed their help.”
The process was conducted to assess the claims for compensation of women who had experienced sexual harassment and gender or sexual orientation based discrimination while working for the RCMP.
Heafey said the women who gave evidence as part of that process suffered from trauma, depression, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, fear and distrust of men.
“Some of them contemplated suicide. And there were suicides,” she said. “It stands to reason that if an officer is allowed to harass their own, how much further will they go with an unarmed civilian?
During the review, women said not all of the men in the RCMP were disrespectful and harassed them, Heafey said.
“They emphasized that there were many men who were kind and were disgusted with the treatment some of their colleagues were perpetrating on them,” she said. “These men too feared reprisals in terms of their careers if they reported what they observed being done to the women.”
Heafey recounted one incident shared by Bastarache, referring to indemnities being paid to women who had been assaulted.
“One woman told of an incident where a male colleague slapped her on the backside in front of other colleagues and then laughed and said, ‘There, that is worth $10,000 to you,” she said.
While the RCMP is an “extreme situation” due to the size of its police service, Heafey said it’s a microcosm of what’s going on in many police departments across Canada. She said the issue has been going on for decades, and the RCMP has simply ignored the problem.
“Police leadership need to hopefully have a mechanism in place, whereby members can feel safe and trust that making a sexual harassment complaint will be heard and will be treated with the seriousness it deserves,” she said. “Ignoring these problems only diminishes the effectiveness of the police because the impact is far-reaching.”
New West not immune
Heafey said she has no doubt that Chief Const. Dave Jansen and his NWPD executives are on top of this issue, but she’s sure the board would support any mechanisms that may be developed to prevent this problem from ever tainting the New Westminster Police Department. She’d like the NWPD to become a leader in this area.
Heafey, who was sworn in as a board member on May 6, told the board she debated on whether or not she should report on the matter to the police board. She apologized to the chief if she had “crossed any lines.”
“When I was interviewed it was clear that the city wants its police service to be human rights based and to treat its citizens in that manner,” she said. “Human rights principles need also to be applied to all members of the police service.”
Mayor Jonathan Cote, who chairs the police board, thanked Heafey for jumping in and participating in the important session and bringing information back to the board.
“It can’t be ignored because it can find its way to seep into the culture,” he said. “Police departments and paramilitary type organizations, unfortunately, they have a history of having greater incidences of these sexual discrimination and abuse issues. Even just looking at the recent news about the Canadian military challenges, sometimes these can embed into the culture and we do want to take it seriously. As a small force, I think this gives us a good opportunity to look and have this discussion here, and have some meaningful dialogue.”
Cote said he’d like the NWPD to report back to the board to elaborate on initiatives that have taken place to date and provide some thoughts on how the department can be proactive in building the type of culture it wants within the organization.
Jansen said the police department has done a number of things on this front, such as updating its policy on respectful workplaces and requiring all sworn and civilian staff to take respectful workplace training related to harassment. He said work on the diversity, equity, inclusion and antiracism framework that’s underway has some overlap in training and policies regarding this issue.
“We aren’t immune from that,” he said of harassment. “If you look at size of the organization, yes, there are larger police organizations across Canada but that doesn’t mean that we haven’t had, nor can I say we will never have, situations in the workplace. It’s incumbent on us to have processes in place to make it as safe as possible for staff to come forward and feel like they, number 1, are going to be heard, are going to be believed, and there’s concrete steps forward that we can take as an organization.”
Jansen noted that when issues like this come forward they now fall under the purview of the Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner of British Columbia.
“I think the benefit to that is that there is an independent person who oversees all of these investigations, has authority to make decisions based upon the findings that may come out of any investigations,” he said.
NWPD management will report back to the police board in the fall.
“No lines were crossed at all,” Jansen told Heafey. “I appreciate the passion and the insight.”