Human rights tribunal hears former cop describe toxic culture of harassment: DiManno

By Rosie DiManno Columnist, Toronto Star

Fri., Nov. 18, 2016

She’s been an RCMP officer, and she’s still a cop. Daughter of a cop too.

What must a father who’s worn the badge think? What must anybody who has heard this 33-year-old woman’s testimony at an Ontario Human Rights Tribunal – Friday was her second tearful day on the stand – make of the respected law and order profession, its alleged toxic culture of sexual harassment and discrimination, which is the meat of the applicant’s complaints.

A litany of humiliations and degrading episodes, as the hearing has heard, through Heather McWilliam’s seven years as a Toronto police officer at 23 Division.

There was this incident at an after-work bar gathering, from October, 2012, as McWilliam described it:

She was sitting at one end of the table, speaking with a trusted detective colleague about a threat – that’s how McWilliam took it – made earlier in the day by a supervising officer who’d warned he had the power to ruin her career for objecting to lurid comments directed her way.

At the far end of the table was Sgt. Angelo Costa. When Costa rose and began hugging others in the group, McWilliam thought he was leaving. Then Costa came towards her, she told the hearing.

“I stood up from my chair and my body froze. I feared he was coming to give me a hug. I told myself, ‘it’s just a hug.’”

Costa, she testified, took her face in his hands.

“Instead of hugging me, he pushed his lips against my lips and he tried to move his tongue into my mouth.”

McWilliam went to the washroom and rinsed out her mouth. “I was disgusted. I’d been sexually assaulted in front of all these people and nobody had said anything.”

And there was this incident, during a phone conversation with Costa, when he called to ask when McWilliam would be able to return to active duty with the drug squad. She’d been off recovering from a neck injury.

“He said he could put my neck to use.”

What did she take that to mean?

“That I could perform oral sex on him.”

It wasn’t a stretch – McWilliam’s connotation of the innuendo – in the context of how she’d been sexually objectified by senior officers at the division, which ultimately led to Police Act charges against her staff sergeant. That individual, Staff Sgt. Christopher Nolan, in 2013 admitted to saying he wanted to spank McWilliam, pled guilty to one count of discreditable conduct and forfeited 20 days’ pay.

And there was the incident when, McWilliam said, Costa told her in front of the entire Criminal Investigations Bureau, that he wanted to take her for a picnic. “He said that even though he was an old Italian guy, he could still satisfy me sexually, that he was very good at oral sex.”

Said it not just that one time but several times, on perhaps up to five occasions. “He spoke like this all the time and no one did anything.”

And there was this incident, during a parade before an evening shift, looking at her while the whole platoon looked on:

“He had his tongue out, it was going back and forth, up and down, like he was (putting it) inside a woman’s vagina.”

Then, McWilliam testified, Costa “demonstrated how he masturbated, moving his hand up and down by several feet. He was laughing about having a very large penis – that’s the demonstration that was occurring.”

But she took it, mostly, put her head down and tried to get on with the job. “I was afraid. I had no one. I felt alone, humiliated, degraded. Like a piece of s—t.”

Already she’d been ostracized within the division for the Police Act complaint brought against Nolan. One senior officer, a female who had previously told McWilliam she wanted the constable on her major crimes unit, had held a piece of paper up against her face when they crossed paths in the corridor. The message, said McWilliam, was clear: She was a traitor, a nuisance, unwanted.

It was after she filed her Police Act accusation, McWilliam told the hearing – after she’d been advised by a union rep to stand up in front of colleagues and explain to them the content of her complaint – that the chill factor ramped up within the division.

“I was having to live what I had been going through. Now all of them would know. I was the weak one. I was the officer who went against them all.

“That’s when the shunning started. They avoided speaking to me. Supervisors who didn’t even know me would go into a deer in the headlights look when I walked into a room.”

Costa, said McWilliam, tormented her with his lewd “jokes” and she didn’t know how to make it stop because complaining about it up to the top echelon had no effect.

“I’d been sexually harassed for so many years. After I was bullied and intimidated, I looked up at the chain of command and realized there was no hope. I had no chance of safety from this type of abuse.”

Costa, who was investigated by Professional Standards after the human rights application was filed, is the only officer specifically named as a party to the complaint, along with the Toronto Police Services Board. After the human rights complaint was filed, Costa was investigated by both Professional Standards and the Special Investigations Unit. No charges were laid arising from those probes and Costa has emphatically denied sexually harassing or discriminating against McWilliam. None of the allegations at the tribunal has been proven.

McWilliam has been on medical leave since early 2014, diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of her experiences. She is seeking $54,000 in compensation and broader remedies to combat systemic sexual harassment. Costa resigned from the Toronto Police Service in the last year.

The human rights tribunal is expected to extend into 2017.