Sexual Harassment on Police Force

This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on April 10, 1995. Partner content is not updated.

For Alice Clark, joining the RCMP in 1980 was the fulfilment of a teenage dream. Two years later, the Hamilton native was posted to the 60-member detachment at Red Deer, Alta., where, at first, the men she worked with were welcoming and helpful. Then, she was transferred to city traffic duty.

Sexual Harassment on Police Force

For Alice Clark, joining the RCMP in 1980 was the fulfilment of a teenage dream. Two years later, the Hamilton native was posted to the 60-member detachment at Red Deer, Alta., where, at first, the men she worked with were welcoming and helpful. Then, she was transferred to city traffic duty. "The officers on my shift made no bones about how they felt about female members," she says. "They didn't like women in the force - period." In 1987, after repeated episodes of sexual harassment and intimidation by male Mounties, Clark quit. She sued the force for damages, telling the Federal Court of Canada that she had been grabbed and propositioned, publicly humiliated by her supervisor and embarrassed one day to find life-sized plastic breasts taped to her desk. Last year, the court awarded her $93,000. "It was the end of the dream," says Clark, now a 37-year-old B.C. government consumer-services representative in Nanaimo. "But at least I got to live it for seven years, which is more than most people do."

Few women police officers have been treated as badly or gone as far as Clark did to redress grievances arising from sexual harassment and discrimination on the job. But hundreds of the 4,286 women among the nation's 56,991 municipal, provincial and federal police officers have been the targets of behavior ranging from mildly offensive squad room comments to blunt requests for sexual favors. In an attempt to put an end to unacceptable conduct, the RCMP, the Ontario Provincial Police and most metropolitan police departments across the nation have introduced - and claim to be enforcing - tough policies against harassment and discrimination. "A lot of men just don't realize where the line is," says David Hoath, the OPP's manager of psychological services. Others do not yet accept the end of male dominance in policing. "It is vitally important," says Christine Silverberg, the deputy chief of Ontario's Hamilton-Wentworth Regional Police, "that we explode the myth that sexual harassment is not very common."

To Clark, harassment was neither mythological nor uncommon. In fact, her lawsuit listed 26 separate incidents during a five-year period. Among them:

1) A plainclothes officer once drove up while she guarded a body at a murder scene and suggested they have sex in the back seat of his car.

2) A supervisor told her in front of other officers "that I was a waste of a uniform and that I should quit and let a real man have a job."

3) When she asked a male cop about his UN peacekeeping campaign ribbon, he told her he got it "for making five female members quit."

4) Shortly after her marriage to a Mountie, another "grabbed me, kissed me and told me if I wanted a real man, to call him when my husband was at work."

5) The men would occasionally play pornographic movies seized from a local video store and, when she and another woman officer objected, "they told us if we didn't like it to hit the road."

Clark finally quit - "I wasn't there to put up with that kind of garbage" - after filing a formal complaint of sexual harassment against the force. Then she was charged - she insists vindictively - with having assaulted three civilians in separate incidents during her time at Red Deer. She was acquitted the following year, and her husband, Bruce, fed up with the way his wife had been treated, resigned from the force as well. He is now an Employment and Immigration Canada investigator in Nanaimo. Meanwhile, Alice says, she has stayed in touch with many of the policewomen who had phoned or written after they read about her case; their experiences lead her to believe that harassment is still commonplace. "A lot of us will talk about it among ourselves, but for them to go public with it is a different ball game," she says. "If you go public, you know it's going to get worse."

The publicity surrounding Clark's courtroom victory also encouraged ex-Mountie Donna McMillan, now a 44-year-old second-year law student at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, to sue the force. Lorne Goddard, the Red Deer lawyer who represented Clark, says McMillan is seeking so-far unspecified damages for emotional harm, negligence, breach of contract, loss of employment and discrimination. He also says that nine or 10 other former policewomen who claimed to have unresolved grievances have called him during the past year. But all had waited too long and their right to take legal action had expired. "What bothers me," Goddard says, "is that when the RCMP decided to admit women, they knew there were going to be some problems. I just think they shut their eyes to it, they just decided that these young women were going to be the sacrificial lambs. Some of them have suffered pretty serious emotional damage."

That conclusion, McMillan says, describes her experience. Because the Mounties had been such a respected and highly visible part of her childhood in Eston, Sask., she joined up in 1975, the year after the RCMP graduated its first-ever female troop from the Regina Training Depot. Her first seven years were uneventful. But in 1982, at the 32-member detachment at Fort Saskatchewan, Alta., 29 km northeast of Edmonton, she encountered a sergeant who, she says, "made it clear he didn't want any women around." At another juncture, a superior struck a prisoner and McMillan refused to go out on the road with him because, she insisted, he was unstable.

From that point, McMillan says, things rapidly went from bad to worse. The man she refused to ride with, assessing her performance two months later, described her as a detriment to the unit, unable to get along with colleagues. "I'd been on the list recommended for promotion since 1982 and he took me off that list," she recounts. She lodged a formal grievance over the assessment and was transferred to Rocky Mountain House, a seven-hour drive from where she had been living. She grieved that transfer, too. Later, she was disciplined again for failing to appear in court when she was ill and off duty. "It was just crazy," McMillan said. When she told her staff sergeant she was quitting, she said he replied: "It doesn't surprise me." Beyond filing a vigorous defence, the RCMP has refused to comment on the grounds that the case is pending; in the meantime, McMillan's claims have yet to be heard by a court.

Most policemen are either indifferent to or philosophical about the arrival of women in the ranks. Those who are neither cling resentfully to policing's historic white male ultra-conservatism and - as of 1992 - women accounted for less than eight per cent of the country's cops. And only 20 women were among the 2,680 who had reached officer rank. In the intermediate ranks, women did somewhat better: of the 14,631 noncommissioned officers, 233 were women. Of the three levels of policing, the RCMP had - again as of 1992 - recruited the most women: 1,434 in a force of 15,662. But only 56 were NCOs, and the officer ranks had a lonely pair.

In a major study of women in law enforcement, the federal solicitor general's ministry in 1993 published The Status of Women in Canadian Policing. The author looked at police departments in Moncton, N.B., London, Ont., Ontario's Halton Region and Delta, B.C., together with RCMP detachments in Burnaby and Surrey, B.C. Two-thirds of the women who took part said there was sexual harassment in policing but that most of it was manageable; sexist or suggestive comments were accepted as part of the job. More than one-fifth of those interviewed said anti-harassment policies were inadequate, and the balance said harassment was a serious problem.

In an attempt to discourage male cops from preying on females, most medium-sized and large police organizations have adopted stiff measures against sexual harassment. In 1993, the RCMP published a 15-page directive that declared it would "neither tolerate harassment nor any discriminatory practice." Sexual harassment was defined as "any conduct, comment, gesture or contact of a sexual nature" that might offend or humiliate or be perceived as being linked to employment, training or promotional opportunities. "We don't say that the policy will eliminate the problem," said a male RCMP spokesman. "But people are going to have to accept responsibility for their actions."

Other law enforcement agencies have taken similar steps. Halifax police are governed by the city's employment standards, which flatly affirm that workplace sexual harassment is against the law. It proscribes "sexist jokes causing embarrassment or offence," leering, sexually degrading words and sexually suggestive or obscene comments - even "unwelcome sexual flirtations." Calgary police are forbidden to make "unwelcome remarks, jokes, innuendos or taunting of a sexual nature." Those are the rules; how effective they are is in some dispute.

The voice on the phone is cautious, hesitant. It belongs to a constable in the Ontario Provincial Police. She will talk only if her name and detachment are withheld. She has served for more than 15 years and is one of the OPP's 25 peer support officers. She gets about five distress calls a month, usually from new female recruits.

"They say he did this to me and that to me and guess what the sergeant's doing to me," she said. "I tell them if you don't do anything about it, then whoever comes after you is going to have to deal with it. But these women don't want to lose out; they just got a $50,000-a-year job, and they feel if they buck a 20-year officer they're going to lose it. I mean who are they going to believe - you or a 20-year officer? You very soon begin not to trust the levels of appeal."

A colleague comes into her office and she stops talking, then resumes. "There are women quitting all the time. A lot of them leave because you can't pay them enough to put up with what they have to put up with. We've got a lot of great guys, but we also get a lot of guys who think the uniform only fits men. Even if you've proved yourself over and over, all of a sudden you meet this 23-year-old dinosaur and you have to do it all over again."

Some women cops tell a different story. At 36, Sgt. Shelley Hart has served 16 years with the 1,100-member Winnipeg Police Service, which includes about 100 women. She says she has heard "a lot of horror stories and I know they're out there. But I have never faced any sexual harassment of a physical kind - never. And anything verbal was just common workplace rhetoric that you get where there is a significantly higher number of men." She has worked vice, robbery, homicide and property crimes, and is now in the traffic division, delighted with her BMW motorcycle.

Karen Adams, a 43-year-old single parent with two daughters, is a corporal and a watch commander supervising six constables, one of them female, in the RCMP detachment at Thompson, Man. When she and 29 other women graduated from the Mounties' Regina training depot in 1975, the force, she says, probably thought "that we'd eventually just get married and get pregnant and go away. But 21 years later, most of us are still here." Adams says any sexual harassment she may have encountered "was nothing that I got so stressed out about that I couldn't handle it myself."

A lot of older policemen freely admit that their opinions about women have changed. "I wondered about the necessity for employing women," says an RCMP sergeant who worked in the Manitoba Training Division two decades ago. "I was a person of my time. What do I think now? They're more than capable. But in 1974, you didn't even have women repairing your telephone."

Deputy Chief Silverberg is a personable woman with a handshake that can make your eyes water. Now 45, she had been a cop for 18 years, rising to the rank of inspector in the Peel Regional Police, before she joined the 1,000-member Hamilton-Wentworth Regional force in 1992. Early in her career, she says, it was widely believed that "you either had to be a whore or a lesbian" to qualify.

Her conversational style is to ask questions and answer them: "Does sexual harassment exist in policing? Yes, it does. Do women and racial minorities feel comfortable about complaining? Most often not. Have I experienced discrimination and harassment? Yes, I have. Have I been able to cope with it? Yes, I have." If sexual harassment was defined as behavior ranging from unsolicited sexual comments to actual touching, "my guess would be that if you canvassed 100 women in a police organization, probably 100 would say that had happened to them."

But achieving equality in policing, says Silverberg, must ultimately involve more than putting an end to sexual harassment. The cop shop has for generations been a man's world, and women have had to excel to even gain admission. "We allow average men to come into our police forces," she says, rapping the desk for emphasis. "I would like to see the day when an average woman could come into a police force and not have to be exceptional."

Maclean's April 10, 1995