Carolyn Vandenberg was a highly respected sergeant in a central Toronto police division until the day in 2009 when everything changed.
That night, she had to arrest a colleague — a popular officer in the same division — for drunk driving, she said. It was the right thing to do. Still, the fallout has been “nothing short of devastating to me personally and professionally,” Vandenberg said, leading overnight to her being ostracized and unsupported by most members of her station and senior management. The officer, whom she did not name, was supported and later moved to a prestigious position, she said.
“I quickly learned that if you choose to do the right thing and it goes against the culture of the organization, you will suffer,” Vandenberg said.
Vandenberg, who retired in 2020 after 31 years on the job, made the comments in a passionate and rare address to the Toronto Police Commission on Wednesday – a deputation in response to a report released last week that found the employees of Canada’s largest municipal police service perceive that harassment and discrimination occur regularly in the workplace.
The report, prepared by consultancy Deloitte and based on interviews and surveys with hundreds of employees, found there was “a clear perception” that harassment happens regularly at work, but there is also a pervasive fear among employees to report or denounce it. This stems from fears of being blacklisted or doubts that it would lead to change, according to the report.
The report highlighted a perception that Toronto police ‘are run primarily by white males’ and that little change is happening because leaders promote others ‘who look, think and act like them’. . It also found that gender-based harassment and discrimination were the most common types within the force.
Toronto Police Chief James Ramer said last week his service was part of a task force with 15 other police services across Ontario to address workplace harassment and discrimination. The problems are “sector-wide and require sector-specific solutions,” he said in response to the report.
Appearing before council via video, Vandenberg said she had experienced a “poisonous police culture”. She participated in Deloitte’s review process and encouraged 15 other employees to share their stories anonymously, one of many attempts she has made throughout her career to “promote change from within “.
Before retiring, Vandenberg said he told Toronto police senior leadership that despite his efforts — and despite training initiatives and changes to workplace harassment policies — problems persisted.
Police officers, “especially women, continued to be harassed, feared to press charges, abusers supported, supervisors and senior management continued to turn a blind eye,” she said.
In 2013, Vandenberg said she tried to make changes when then-chief Bill Blair, upset with officers’ conduct, questioned why supervisors weren’t reporting misconduct by officers. She said she set up a meeting with a senior officer to share her experience of being ostracized for arresting a co-worker – “I knew full well why supervisors sometimes choose to condone misconduct,” he said. – she said – but told the council that nothing was coming. this.
Co-workers also faced severe backlash when they reported workplace harassment, Vandenberg said. A female officer was bullied “ruthlessly” by her superior, an employee who had grassroots support, she said. Vandenberg said that after a senior female officer filed a complaint on her behalf, both women faced retaliation.
“It would seem that even if you’re in a high-ranking position, you’re not immune to the power of organizational culture,” Vandenberg said.
Vandenberg said that after her retirement she realized that she had been deeply affected and that in her last 10 years of work she had suffered from depression and anxiety and numb the pain with alcohol. ” I suffered. My husband and my children have seen me suffer,” she told the board.
In comments sent directly to The Star, Vandenberg said she called on the board and the service to put a ‘stop to what is happening within the Toronto Police Service’ and apologize to the victims. .
“And really, if the issues continue to linger on the inside, then how is that going to change on the outside?” Vandenberg said.
After his deputation, Ramer acknowledged the “courage” it took officers to report the harassment and thanked Vandenberg for speaking out.
“It’s only because of your willingness to call it out and report it that we’ll ever be able to address this properly,” Ramer said of the officers who took part in the review. “I’m proud of every member who had the courage to do this.”
Ramer said he recognizes that the pain of bullying leaves scars that for some never heal – “knowing that this happened in our service is just disheartening,” he said.
He said he would do everything to address and prevent harassment at work and said all officers, including senior ranks, would be subject to disciplinary action if they engaged in it.
“I can assure you (they will be) in court,” he said.
Toronto police said in a statement last week that an employee review conducted in 2021 showed 78% of employees felt the force was “improving and making active efforts to create a more inclusive environment”.
The service said it was acting on measures recommended by the Deloitte report and had strengthened training requirements for police officers and cadets and provided anti-harassment training to all supervisors and senior officers.
The police department’s statement also says it has redesigned its workplace harassment and discrimination complaints process, “which will address comments about the lack of trust, transparency and accountability in the process.”
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