Carolyn Vandenberg was a well-respected sergeant at a mid-Toronto police division until the day in 2009 when everything changed.
That night she had to arrest a colleague — a popular officer from the same division — for impaired driving, she said. It was the right thing to do. Yet the fallout was “nothing short of devastating for me personally and professionally,” Vandenberg said, leading overnight to being ostracized and unsupported by most of her in her station and her 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 board Wednesday — a deputation in response to a report released last week that found employees within Canada’s largest municipal police service perceive that Harassment and discrimination regularly occur at work.
The report, prepared by consulting firm Deloitte and based on interviews and surveys with hundreds of employees, found that there was “a clear perception” harassment regularly occurs at work, but there’s also pervasive fear among employees about reporting it or calling it out. That stems from fears of being blacklisted or doubts it would lead to any change, the report said.
The report highlighted a perception that Toronto police “is led predominantly by white males,” and that little change occurs because leaders promote others “that look, think and act like them.” It also found that gender-based harassment and discrimination was the most common type within the force.
Toronto police Chief James Ramer said last week that his service is part of a working group with 15 other Ontario police services tackling workplace harassment and discrimination. The problems are “sector-wide and require sector-based solutions,” he said in response to the report.
Appearing before the board via video, Vandenberg said she has experienced a “poisoned culture of policing.” She participated in Deloitte’s review process and encouraged 15 other female employees to share their stories anonymously, one of several attempts she said she’d made her career throughout her career to “promote change from the inside.”
Before retiring, Vandenberg said she told Toronto police senior management that despite her efforts — and in spite of training initiatives and changes to workplace harassment policies — problems persisted.
Police officers, “particularly women, continued to be harassed, were afraid to report, abusers were supported, supervisors and senior management continued to turn a blind eye,” she said.
In 2013, Vandenberg said she’d tried to effect change when then chief Bill Blair, upset with officer conduct, asked why supervisors didn’t report misconduct by officers. She said she arranged a meeting with a senior officer to share her experience of being ostracized for arresting a colleague — “I knew full well why supervisors sometimes chose to turn a blind eye to misconduct,” she said — but told the board nothing came of Item.
Colleagues also experienced serious blowback when they reported workplace harassment, Vandenberg said. One female officer was bullied “mercilessly” by her superior, an employee who had the support of the rank and file, she said. Vandenberg said after a higher-ranking female officer initiated a complaint on her behalf, both women experienced reprisals.
“It would seem that even if you hold a high-ranking position you are not immune to the power of the culture of the organization,” Vandenberg said.
Vandenberg said that after her retirement, she realized that she had been deeply affected and that in her final 10 years on the job she’d been experiencing depression and anxiety and numbing the pain with alcohol. “I have suffered. My husband and children have watched me suffer,” she told the board.
In comments sent directly to the Star, Vandenberg said she was calling on the board and the service to put a “stop to what goes on within the Toronto Police Service,” and apologize to victims.
“And really, if the problems continue to persist on the inside, then how is anything going to change on the outside?” Vandenberg said.
Following her deputation, Ramer acknowledged the “courage” it took for officers to call out harassment and thanked Vandenberg for speaking out.
“It is only through your willingness to call it out and to report it that we will ever be able to properly address it,” Ramer said of officers who participated in the review. “I’m proud of each and every member that’s had the courage to do so.”
Ramer said he recognized the pain caused by harassment leaves scars that for some never heal — “to know this has happened in our service is nothing short of disheartening,” he said.
He said he would do everything to address and prevent workplace harassment and stated all officers, including at senior ranks, would face discipline if they were engaged in it.
“I can assure you (they will) be in front of the court,” he said.
Last week, Toronto police said in a statement that an employee review done in 2021 showed that 78 per cent of employees felt the force “is improving and making active efforts to build a more inclusive environment.”
The service said it is acting on recommended steps from the Deloitte report and has enhanced the training requirement for police officers and cadets and provided anti-harassment training for all supervisors and senior officers.
The police service’s statement also said it has redesigned its workplace harassment and discrimination complaints process, “which will address feedback about the lack of trust, transparency and accountability in the process.”
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