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Opinion: BC police forces must demonstrate zero tolerance for sexism within their ranks

By Laurel McBride
January 9, 2024

Last October, a notice of civil claim was registered in the Supreme Court of British Columbia on behalf of six women current and former police officers in B.C. They are the representative plaintiffs in a class action launched to address rampant sexual harassment and assaults in BC’s 13 municipal police forces. The claim sets out that when female members raised complaints they were dismissed and subjected to retaliation. One of the plaintiffs, a member with Central Saanich Police Services, Ms. Piper details frequently being touched on her buttocks by fellow officers and being threatened to be penetrated with a service rifle by a male officer. Another plaintiff, a former officer with VPD, was the victim of sexual assault by a fellow VPD officer, Jagraj Roger Berar. Berar was charged and convicted with committing the assault. According to the plaintiff, VPD held meetings to organize support for Mr. Berar, including supporting him at trial, while she was intimidated and left unsupported as the victim.  

The recent class action suit is not the first time that women officers have exposed the widespread misogynistic treatment and violence against them. As the 2020 “Broken Dreams Broken Lives” report examining the RCMP’s conduct toward its female officers revealed, “the level of violence and sexual assault that was reported was shocking.”

The BC Coroners Inquest into the 2019 suicide of Vancouver Police Department officer, Nicole Chan, took place in early 2023. Nicole had been in a relationship with Sgt. Dave Van Patten, a male senior officer who worked in the Human Resources department. In 2017 she reported to a member of the VPD sex crimes unit alleging that Van Patten coerced her into sex and threatened to release intimate images of her to her male partner. In 2018, she also made a WorkSafeBC claim in relation to the impacts this had had on her. She outlines that Van Patten’s access to her medical and personnel files and direct communication with a VPD psychologist who had treated her, heightened her distress.

The BC Coroner’s Inquest made a number of recommendations to the Vancouver Police Department, focusing on implementing human resources training and addressing “gossip” in the workplace. In a statement released after the inquest, Chief Adam Palmer said “We remain committed to ensuring Nicole’s death continues to lead to positive change within policing and for anyone struggling with their mental health.” This response conceals the connection between the sexist violence experienced by Nicole in her place of work and her deteriorating mental health. Disappointingly, the inquest completely failed to name the complex power dynamics that women officers encounter, particularly junior officers.

Saanich Police, one of the defendants in the current class action suit, recently boasted on social media that they were deploying an all-female team that evening. The police chief said in a later media interview, that they are committed to 30% of their officers being female by 2030. Although efforts to increase the number of women in policing is worthwhile, it alone will not shift the toxic, misogynistic culture into one that values women’s contributions. Training that explicitly challenges sexist attitudes and behaviours is important but must be coupled with zero tolerance for sexual harassment and assault. Police forces must conduct thorough investigations into victims’ complaints and hold the male officers responsible for degrading and sexist acts to account, including those in the highest ranks.

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