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‘Blue wall of silence’ protects police officers accused of gender-based violence, victims say

WARNING: This article contains graphic content and may affect those who have experienced​ ​​​sexual violence or know someone affected by it.

She was a sergeant and he was a constable. They met at work and became a power couple, sporting matching police badges. 

But their love story would end in violence. It didn’t matter that she outranked him — what happened flipped their power balance.

“It was just a slow burn downhill into what became a serious situation of coercive control, which I didn’t see that clearly at the time,” she said. 

It began with verbal insults, but the woman said her ex-husband became increasingly controlling. He even used a listening device to spy on her, according to court files.

It all came to a head one night in July 2019.

“There was an explosive confrontation,” she said. “[He was] chasing me and the kids around the house and we barricaded ourselves in the bedroom and he broke in and my son was trying to defend me. It was such a scene.” 

She called her boss, then escaped the house.

“I went to my own police headquarters in my pyjama shirt,” she said. 

The police were concerned her husband might be armed, so they dispatched a tactical unit. 

“My kids saw their dad get arrested,” said the sergeant, who CBC News has agreed not to name to protect her safety. “I had to stay in the domestic violence office until they could execute a search warrant because they couldn’t find his gun. It wasn’t where it was supposed to be at work.”

Her then husband was locked up in jail while officers searched the couple’s home. Police eventually charged him with intercepting private communications, assault, extortion and careless storage of a firearm.

In the literature on gender-based violence, police are disproportionately perpetrators of particularly domestic violence.​​– Danielle McNabb, Brock University

The officer from the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) was suspended with pay. He would go on to stay home for 646 days, collecting almost $300,000 in salary before he finally resigned in 2021. 

Throughout the ordeal, his ex-wife said she was the one treated as the outcast.

“No one came to me and said, ‘OK, we’ve rallied the troops. This is what to expect. This is how you go back to work,'” she recalled. “None of that happened.”

Her ex is among the more than 453 cases of suspensions with pay in Ontario over the past decade at a cost of $134 million, according to an exclusive CBC investigation. 

CBC’s research found that more than one-third of the allegations leading to officer suspensions since 2013 involved gender-based violence including sexual assault, domestic violence or sexual harassment.

“In the literature on gender-based violence, police are disproportionately perpetrators of particularly domestic violence,” said Danielle McNabb, an assistant professor who researches Canadian public law at Brock University.

“I do think that this really constitutes the tip of the iceberg from what we know about the pervasive underreporting of gender-based violence.”

The variety of scenarios uncovered in CBC’s data include off-duty officers who allegedly abused their spouses, on-duty officers who had sex with vulnerable people, as well as cops who worked in sexual or domestic abuse units.

CBC’s data set also revealed multiple cases where the victims — girlfriends, wives and partners of officers — were themselves serving in law enforcement. And like the sergeant from the GTA, they found themselves on the other side of the desk in a policing system they say is unsupportive and rife with professional conflict. 

A woman leans on a fence outside in spring.
Kelly Donovan said she decided to become a police officer to effect change after leaving an abusive common-law relationship. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

Reprimanded and muzzled

Kelly Donovan decided to become a police officer to effect change after leaving an abusive, common-law relationship with a southwestern Ontario officer.

“He had always kind of been controlling,” said Donovan of their long-term relationship. “The abuse became physical and I had to eventually go to the police for help.” 

But she said the officer who arrived talked her into “watering down” her statement.

“He kept saying, ‘You need to understand the implications of what you’re telling me,'” Donovan remembers.

I knew I had to do something about it.– Kelly Donovan, former police officer

No charges were laid against her ex. 

The experience galvanized Donovan, in part, to join a nearby police force. She became a constable with the Waterloo Regional Police Service in late 2010.

Six years into that job, she worried her employer wasn’t consistent when it came to handling allegations against its own members.

“They weren’t investigating their own people for domestic violence the way they were investigating members of the public,” said Donovan. “I knew I had to do something about it.” 

A woman outside in spring.
Donovan, a former police constable, now researches, writes and makes recommendations about how police forces in Canada could better handle internal investigations. (Bobby Hristova/CBC )

In 2016, Donovan took a day off work and presented her concerns to Waterloo’s police services board. Her plan was to encourage the force to establish a new policy for conducting investigations involving fellow officers.

But within days, Donovan was reprimanded. The chief forbade her from appearing at future board meetings without the chief’s permission, and she was put on administrative duties. 

According to a professional standards directive, the force alleged she had criticized the police service and divulged information about a case without permission. An internal investigation was launched into multiple disciplinary charges against Donovan, including breach of confidence and neglect of duty.

Police leadership maintains she broke the code of conduct. She saw it all as retaliation and said she was muzzled. 

Donovan resigned from the force 14 months later. The now former chief has said that Waterloo police are committed to building and modernizing a “strong workforce” where all members thrive, but the legal battle between Donovan and the Waterloo force continues. 

Today, she’s a vocal critic of the way police forces across Canada handle internal investigations. 

“When you look at transcripts from court hearings and things for domestic violence, the woman might have said to her partner, ‘Stop doing this or I’m going to call the police,'” said Donovan. 

“And they’ll say, ‘I am the police. Do you think my buddies are going to come here and arrest me?'” 

‘We hire from the human race’

CBC’s research found that 36 per cent of officers accused of crimes involving gender-based violence were convicted. By contrast, the rate of criminal conviction was 58 per cent for other charges including drug trafficking, fraud, impaired driving and assault.

“It disheartens me for sure,” said Jeff McGuire, executive director of the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police, reacting to CBC’s gender-based violence data. 

“But we hire from the human race,” he said. “Keeping in mind that these are events that occur in the officers’ private life.”

In fact, CBC’s data set does include some cases where the alleged incidents took place while officers were on the job, including:

  • A Brockville officer was convicted in 2019 after reportedly having sex with a woman in the back of his police van while on duty. The woman was still under active police investigation at the time.
  • A Toronto officer was sentenced to four years in prison in February for sexually assaulting the victim of a crime while the officer was on duty. 
  • A case involving another Toronto officer who was charged in May 2023 alleges he had “unwanted sexual relations” with a woman who’d called police to report a domestic assault.

“To be revictimized by a police officer, I just think that’s such a breach of trust, such a violation of the public’s confidence in the criminal justice system and in policing specifically,” said McNabb. 

A support organization director gives an interview in an office.
Keri Lewis, executive director of Ottawa’s Interval House, which offers shelter and support services for women and children fleeing abuse, said she’s witnessed survivors of police abuse come through her doors. (Jean Delisle/CBC)

‘Really troubling’

Among the 158 suspensions tied to allegations of gender-based violence since 2013, CBC found close to one-third of the 53 criminally convicted officers returned to work after fulfilling their disciplinary requirements such as a conditional discharge. 

There’s no rule against an officer getting back on the job after being convicted of a crime, unless they’ve been sentenced to imprisonment. 

Keri Lewis, executive director of Ottawa’s Interval House, which offers shelter and support services for women and children fleeing abuse, said she’s witnessed survivors of police abuse come through her doors.

“We know in the U.S. about 40 per cent of police families experience intimate partner violence, compared to about 10 per cent of the population,” she said, noting a lack of Canadian statistics on the matter. 

To have the honour of entering people’s lives in these incredibly vulnerable times, they should be held to a much higher standard.– Keri Lewis, Interval House

“To know that on a larger scale across the province that there are multiple officers who have been convicted of abuse or harassment, and that they’ve been allowed back into their roles as police officers in these positions of authority, is really troubling.”

Like the police, Lewis said her employees are responsible for protecting vulnerable people. But her organization would not allow employees to return to work after a conviction involving gender-based violence.

“Officers are the same as us. They’re meeting people at the most challenging, traumatic times of their lives,” she said. “To have the honour of entering people’s lives in these incredibly vulnerable times, they should be held to a much higher standard.” 

CBC’s research also found a small number of officers accused or convicted of gender-based violence have worked in domestic assault or sexual abuse units before or after their suspensions.

In March 2023, Const. Yourik Brisebois, an Ottawa Police Service (OPS) officer, was found guilty of two criminal charges including threatening to kill his ex while wielding a kitchen knife. She also works for the OPS.

Brisebois was suspended with pay for 18 months before returning to work. In the four years before the offences, he was a member of OPS’s intimate partner violence unit.

“The cases that he was involved in are being reviewed by the Ottawa police. That’s something that they’ve agreed to do,” said Lewis, who pressured the OPS to initiate that review.

‘Blue wall of silence’

Kate Puddister, an associate professor at the University of Guelph who focuses her research on criminal justice policy, said the culture of policing is part of the problem, allowing a “blue wall of silence” to pervade investigations involving other officers.  

“Concerns about fear, intimidation and retaliation are all increased when the perpetrator is a police officer, and these concerns don’t disappear when the complainant or victim is a police officer themselves,” she said.

Those concerns are shared by several male officers who were previously suspended for allegations of gender-based violence.

While none of the four sources agreed to speak on the record due to professional and legal concerns, they all told CBC they were unfairly treated when their own forces investigated them. 

Mark Baxter, president of the Police Association of Ontario, said his organization, which represents sworn officers belonging to 45 unions, supports everyone involved in these kinds of alleged crimes.

“We don’t support violence against women and we don’t think that gender-based violence is acceptable in society, and so we know that there are processes in place to deal with officers that are accused of those situations,” said Baxter.

The GTA sergeant who reported her constable husband said in the aftermath of her case, the treatment she received from some police colleagues and leaders felt almost as bad as the abuse she suffered during her marriage.

In the days after her ex’s arrest, she was reassigned to the domestic assault unit where she would have to review and investigate crimes against other women. 

Her close colleagues were also privy to her own sensitive information.

“It was awful in the office where everyone knows my business, where on the server there’s naked pictures of me,” she recalled. 

“It was so surreal,” the officer said. “I’m telling my former subordinate all these intimate details.” 

She remembers thinking she’d be better supported had she been shot or diagnosed with cancer. 

Her ex-husband was convicted of one criminal charge in 2020, while other charges were dropped. He was given a suspended sentence and two years of probation. The constable quit before his disciplinary hearing.

She, too, is away from her job — not because of anything she did, but because of all that’s happened to her. 

The sergeant is on medical leave due to trauma and stress. 

“I gave extra. I stayed later. I did training videos and I did special presentations,” she said about the job that she loved. “I did all the things and I thought it mattered, and then it didn’t, and it was shocking.”

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