Women in policing share stories of harassment, ask why is it so hard to get justice

Female police officers across Canada expose their experiences with harassment within the ranks. Cynthia Mulligan reports on why it can be so difficult to be heard.

By Cynthia Mulligan

Editor’s Note: This article contains graphic language and discussion of subject matter that some may find disturbing

They signed up to serve and protect because they wanted to help people. But there are women in police forces across Canada who say that dream was shattered when they were harassed and abused by their male colleagues. A group of female officers, past and present, spoke to CityNews to share their stories of workplace harassment and ask why is it so hard for them to get justice?

“I refused to send him naked pictures”

The five officers shared similar stories of alleged sexual assault, harassment, and reprisals when speaking out.

“He ripped my shirt off me and then that same officer told me at the time that he was going to ruin my career and he has,” said Jaime McCabe-Wyville, a staff sergeant in Sarnia.

“I was sexually assaulted in 2014,” Toronto police Const. Effy Zarabi told CityNews. “When I wanted to report that, I was told by officers be careful this will end your career.”

Angie Rivers, a constable with Waterloo Regional Police Service, recalled receiving texts from a superior officer who allegedly said he was “naked and drunk” and requested naked photos of her.

According to Vera Mackenzie, who left policing more than two decades ago, nothing has changed.

“It’s heartbreaking that 25 years later we are having the same conversation.”

The following are screen shots of texts sent in a chat among police officers containing graphic language that some will find offensive.

“It is career suicide”

There were all proud to wear a uniform, but when they filed complaints about sexist, harassing and at times violent behavior, they say they were ostracized.

“It is career suicide,” McCabe-Wyville said.

“When you stand up to a male officer, they close the ranks together,” added Rivers.

The women say they had little or no help from their male dominated unions.

“In my case he was the president of the union,” said Cary Ryan, a former West Vancouver police officer, who alleges she was subjected to systemic violence and abuse. “There is nowhere to go, there is no hope, there is nothing.”

Sexual abuse and harassment of female officers has been well documented in this country. In 2016, more than 3,000 female officers won a $100 million class action lawsuit against the RCMP. The Canadian Military is currently embroiled in its own reckoning.

RELATED: Court approves settlement for women suing RCMP over discrimination

RELATED: DND, Veterans Affairs workers say harassment complaints not taken seriously: unions

RELATED: Former UN human rights czar Louise Arbour tapped to review military sex misconduct

RELATED: Feds to pay $900M to those who experienced sexual misconduct in the military

Toronto Police Const. Heather McWilliam won a landmark human rights complaint last year. The Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario found she endured years of sexual harassment from her male colleagues. Zarabi, however, is still fighting for justice at a professional and personal price. She is on stress leave and has risked her financial security by filing her complaint against the Toronto Police Service in 2018.

Zarabi said she is up against five different law firms representing the male colleagues and superiors she alleges barraged her with sexist and racist comments for years.

“They don’t pay a dime, they get full support,” she said. “I had to sell my home just to afford lawyers… I lost my pension in 2018. They haven’t put a penny into my pension. I’m getting 75 per cent of my salary. I have no support.”

According to Zarabi, she has already paid lawyers approximately $40,000 and still owes $130,000 in legal fees and court costs. She provided CityNews with sexualized and racist texts she said were from male colleagues.

“Why am I spending hundreds of thousands of dollars out of pocket when I have all this evidence, videos, text messages?”

According to the latest data from Statistics Canada, the number of women in policing has increased from 4 per cent in 1986 to 22 per cent in 2019. While Toronto has Canada’s largest police force, the number of sexual harassment cases brought forward is small. There have been just 12 complaints over three years from 2018 to 2020. McCabe-Wyville believes the low number doesn’t reflect reality.

“When you see what’s happening to us, why would anyone want to come forward?” she asked.

“It’s not just a few bad apples”

Lesley Bikos is a former London, Ont., police officer and current PhD candidate who is writing her dissertation on police culture. She has spoken to 116 officers at forces across the country for her research and did an online survey with over 700 more.

“It’s not just a few bad apples. It is culturally and institutionally embedded,” Bikos said. “Unions remain white heteronormative male dominated institutions all on their own. And so not representative and therefore not always understanding or willing to understand what systemic sexism or racism looks like in the institution.”

CityNews requested interviews for this story from Toronto Police Association President Jon Reid, Mayor John Tory who sits on the Police Services Board, and Toronto’s interim Chief of Police James Ramer. All refused.

In a statement, Ramer said since he became chief, they have been analyzing workplace culture and acknowledged, “there is room for improvement.” It is a far cry from what policewomen like Zarabi say is needed.

“Victims are being buried, they’re being shunned they’re being tossed out of work,” said Zarabi. “Mostly women are losing their careers, their livelihoods and these guys continue to go on.”

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