Feb 17 2014
METRO VANCOUVER - The B.C. government will investigate allegations of harassment, racism and bullying at the West Vancouver police department, following an employee survey that suggests morale is at an all-time low and officers have little faith in their “absentee” chief and deputy.
The move coincided Monday with a retirement announcement from the department’s Chief Const. Peter Lepine, who plans to step down in September after helming the force for the past five years. The exact timeline of his departure depends on when a replacement can be found.
“I’m aware there are some allegations from West Vancouver,” Justice Minister Suzanne Anton said on Monday. “The government expects all police officers in British Columbia to act with respect (toward) their colleagues. That being said, it’s far too early to speculate on what the exact circumstances are in West Vancouver.”
Lepine maintains he has been discussing his retirement with the West Vancouver Police Board since last fall and that his departure has nothing to do with the growing controversy over the department’s alleged culture of entrenched racism, sexual harassment and bullying.
“It was important for me to allow the board to move forward with a new chief,” he said. “It’s certainly time for me to go.”
After the news broke, Mayor Michael Smith thanked Lepine for his five years as chief and said that, despite media reports on the low “morale at the WVPD,” the 102-year-old force provides “excellent service” to citizens.
An internal 2013 employee survey released to the department brass on Nov. 2 found major issues with morale, and noted that employees described Lepine and his deputy as “absentee.”
Just under half of the 79 respondents to the survey said they were thinking about or actively seeking another job.
Four years ago in a similar survey, 35 per cent of employees said they did not think that senior management had a “sincere interest in employees’ well being.” That percentage more than doubled to 72 per cent of respondents in the 2013 survey.
Over half of those surveyed also agreed that senior management weren’t clearly communicating their vision for long-term success, or promoting activities that build a community atmosphere among employees.
A third of people said they were not being treated with dignity and respect in the workplace.
Professional human resources consultant Terry Anderson examined the data for the department and concluded that employees exhibited “moderate-to-strong dissatisfaction and possibly serious disengagement” because of the perceived behaviour of the top brass.
Former West Vancouver chief Kash Heed doubted that Lepine’s retirement — after the 2013 survey found confidence in leadership had dropped to “critical levels” — would bring about meaningful change to the department’s “broken” culture.
Heed served as Lepine’s predecessor from 2007 to 2009, before leaving to run for provincial office.
He said that in the past few months a significant number of the department’s 83 sworn officers have approached him with “very disturbing stories” about the activities within the department.
“When I prompt them to move forward with those type of complaints, they say that they fear significant retribution,” Heed said. “They feel that retribution (will come about), based on what has happened to others that have come forward with concerns about the department.”
Heed said there have been notable problems with bullying, sexual harassment and racism in the department for decades, and recalls hearing the slur “Paki” directed toward himself by fellow officers during his term as chief.
“I had to have thick skin because I had racial attacks in my direction,” he said.
He said his first act while chief was to outlaw booze at work functions and crack down on the “significant drinking problem identified within that department.”
He said he also created the department’s first internal investigation unit.
He said the reforms he implemented during his short term as chief appear to have been rolled back.
“The culture is so disturbing in that department. There needs to be significant massive changes put in place immediately,” he said. “It has to be fixed. The City of West Vancouver is on the hook for $12 million a year for these services.”
Lepine maintains work is already being done to address some of the issues raised in the survey last fall. When he first took over as chief in 2009, he added, “there had been no litmus test in terms of morale” until he brought in the first anonymous employee engagement survey.
“You’re not just trying to put a Band-Aid on it,” he said. “You want to be able to drive through change.
“I have dealt with every issue of harassment that has come to my attention. They are not tolerated, and they are dealt with expeditiously.”
The problem, he said, is that in many cases, he only hears of harassment claims from a third party, and the victim often doesn’t want to come forward. He maintains he has tried to give staff options, such as consulting directly with the police board.
“It’s like shadowboxing,” he said. “All I can do is continue to encourage people to come forward.”
But Heed said the changes rest on the shoulders of the West Vancouver mayor and the Police Board, noting one option to consider is having the department absorbed by a credible organization such as the Vancouver police. Now, when someone is murdered in the North Shore municipality, a West Vancouver detective is seconded to the VPD's homicide unit - which helps guide the investigation.
Anton said Monday that it was “way too early” to speculate on how to deal with the department’s problems, noting that the director of provincial police services has just begun looking into the issue.
“He’s talking to the police board, he’s talking to the police chief, and, as I said, he’ll report back to me,” Anton said.
Under the Police Act, the B.C. government has the power to intervene in the situation. Anton could order a review of the department, or alter the structure of its police board, or reorganize and change a community’s police service, even if those changes are against the community’s wishes.
The government forcibly amalgamated the Esquimalt police force with the City of Victoria department in 2003, for instance, and later denied an Esquimalt council move to abandon that deal and contract with the RCMP.
Rob Gordon, head of criminology at Simon Fraser University, maintains that while there are always moments of lapses in public safety, the problem here is the intensity and the timeline involved, said the situation calls for a major independent review and reorganization.
A merging of the force with Vancouver has merit, he added. This can be done through a contractual agreement, with the approval of the Ministry of Justice, which could lead to the immediate removal of West Vancouver’s senior and middle management, with junior officers transferred to Vancouver.
“Quite clearly, a lot of the problems lie within the ranks in West Vancouver,” Gordon said. “Going in there and simply shooting the police chief and throwing the inspectors under the bus would not solve the problem. There has to be radical change.
“If morale is that bad, an infusion of individuals with high morale is going to make a huge difference to policing in that community,” he said.
Lepine said he will go along with the mayor’s wishes, but he noted there isn’t an easy fix.
“If you go to any other police department and ask them about employee engagement, I would think, given my 35 years of policing, they do exist. And they exist not only within the police department but in all sorts of organizations, private and public. I don’t believe for a minute they would disappear. These things come and go. What’s important is when these things do happen, they are dealt with.”