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Female officers file class-action lawsuit against 12 municipal police departments in B.C.

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Warning: This story contains graphic details that may be disturbing to some.

Six former and current female police officers from B.C. have launched a lawsuit in the B.C. Supreme Court, alleging discrimination, harassment and bullying on the basis of gender and/or sexual orientation.

The lawsuit names 13 cities or districts with municipal police forces, the Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner of BC, the King, the B.C. attorney general and minister of public safety and solicitor general of B.C. as defendants.

The lawsuit outlines several incidents in which the female officers were subjected to “unwanted sexual comments” and “unwanted sexual touching” by other officers in the workplace.

Plaintiff Helen Irvine claims she was subjected to workplace sexual harassment at the Delta Police Department. She later quit.

“I have learned that it wasn't just me, there were so many of us, and all of our stories had very common threads,” Irvine told CTV News. “The more we talked, and the more we learned that everybody had tried everything else. And we felt that this was the only option that we had left, and just the magnitude of the problem needed a bigger arena to bring more attention to the issue.”

One of the plaintiffs, Ann-Sue Piper, a constable with the Central Saanich Police Service for 15 years, was allegedly subjected to routine “jokes” about oral sex and was threatened to be “penetrated with a service rifle by a male officer,” according to the lawsuit.

The court document claims Piper made complaints about the harassment she was facing, and those complaints were insufficiently addressed and led to “retaliatory abuse, often at the hands of CSPS management.”

MANAGEMENT ASKS COMPLAINTS TO BE DROPPED: LAWSUIT

Piper’s experience was not unique, as alleged in the lawsuit.

When several of the other plaintiffs say they told the management of their respective police departments about harassment, they were met with “retaliatory abuse” from other officers and management.

One such example is Cary Ryan, a former constable with the West Vancouver Police Department.

“Ms. Ryan was exposed to graphic, misogynistic photographs of a woman on her period, and was routinely exposed to unwanted physical contact and invitations for sex with co-workers,” the lawsuit writes.

It goes on to say that when she complained to the WVPD, management allegedly asked her to “drop her complaints” and sign a document which described her complaints as emotional.

Other examples involving the other plaintiffs allege their complaints were met with “retaliatory abuse” by management, in which they were publicly called out as not being a team player, and given "domestic tasks" such as restocking a cooler with alcoholic beverages.

“Due to a systemic culture of gender and sexual orientation-based harassment and discrimination in the municipal police departments, the representative plaintiffs and other class members were ostracized, belittled and humiliated, and their career advancement prospects limited,” the lawsuit writes.

LATEST INCIDENT

In a recent incident that happened over nearly a two-week period this past August, a framed poster was put in the Vancouver Police Department’s Forensic Identification Unit classroom containing 20 officers’ portraits, including plaintiff Anja Bergler’s and at least seven other female officers, with a tag line, “swabbing penises for over 100 years,” according to the court document.

The lawsuit goes on to write female FIU officers do not perform penile swabs on sexual assault suspects.

ASSAULT VICTIM NOT GIVEN SUPPORT: LAWSUIT

One of the plaintiffs, who CTV News is not identifying as she was a victim of sexual assault, highlights a disturbing allegation.

The woman, who will be referred to by the pseudonym "Susan," was assaulted by another VPD officer, identified in the lawsuit as RB.

“In the days leading up to and weeks following RB’s arrest, the VPD held a number of meetings to plan and organize support for RB, but not for (the victim),” it writes. “VPD also provided legal representation to other officers who were deemed ‘witnesses’ to the assault. However, VPD did not provide any legal representation to (the victim) because she was ‘just the complainant.’"

Susan told CTV News the way she was treated showcases the inherent issues of policing in the province.

“You can't be a victim and wear the uniform,” she said. “They left me with two choices: quit or kill myself. Those are the two choices. That's the system.”

RB was later convicted of the assault and, according to the lawsuit, it was revealed RB had previously been credibly accused of sexual assault against a civilian police employee and the VPD had failed to have in place steps to protect female officers from RB and adequately investigate the credible allegations of assault.

After 16 years on the force, the victim quit the VPD.

CALLS FOR POLICE ACT CHANGES

Some of the plaintiffs told CTV News they would like to see changes made to the province’s Police Act.

“Government created this piece of legislation that is an unbelievably open-ended, powerful piece of legislation. And what they have done is they've created an umbrella for rogue, wrongdoing police officers to be protected at all costs,” Susan said.

The plaintiffs believe it is their duty to shed light on the alleged wrongdoings.

“We enter this profession to make a change, to make a positive change in people's lives,” Lauren Phillips, another plaintiff, told CTV News. “This has all been swept under the rug for way too long. And now it's time to fight back and the gloves are off.”

In an emailed statement, Solicitor General Mike Farnworth wrote, “We are devoted to ensuring that every person who works with municipal police services is working in a safe and respectful environment, free from harassment in any form.”

“As this matter is before the courts, I will not be commenting on this further,” he wrote.

NEXT STEPS

Proceedings are underway to get the complaint certified as a class-action lawsuit, which would mean female municipal police officers automatically join the lawsuit.

Certification may take between 90 days to one year.

The lawsuit claims the municipal police defendants and ministerial defendants negligently breached their duty of care to the plaintiffs and other class members.

It is seeking damages for loss of income – both past and future – loss of promotional opportunities, early resignation and loss of pensions.

None of the allegations have been proven in court.

The defendants have not filed a response.

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