On the morning of May 24, 2014, VicPD Sergeant Paul Brookes responded to an emergency call about an unresponsive baby. The two-month-old boy had been brought to his mother’s workplace, the McDonald’s at View and Douglas, by her new boyfriend. The baby had had a fever earlier that morning. He’d been fussy and refused his bottle. The boyfriend reported having bounced the infant on his knee, perhaps too hard. He told an officer that “shaken baby syndrome” might explain the lack of a pulse.
On the floor of the restaurant, Brookes bent over the tiny body and tried to breathe life into it. The memory of that experience still plagues him.
It was one of hundreds of times, over the course of Brookes’s decades-long policing career, that he found himself at the scene of a death. Those other deaths plague him too.
A 53-year-old married father of three, Brookes suffers from PTSD and major depressive disorder. He has nightmares he describes as horrific. Ordinary things strike him as macabre. “If you name something, I can associate death with it,” he says. “Whether it be sunglasses or sunshine or water, there are tendrils that can bring forth connections to those scenes.”
Policing is an inherently stressful career, and law enforcement officers are known to have higher rates of post-traumatic stress and suicide than the general population. Secondary trauma from responding to others’ trauma, as well as direct and cumulative trauma from exposures to violent and life-threatening events, are well-known occupational hazards.
Members of the general public tend to have fewer than 10 potentially psychologically traumatic exposures over the course of their lives, according to Nick Jones, executive director of the Canadian Institute for Public Safety Research and Treatment (CIPSRT)—whereas public safety personnel might have 10 per day, and “hundreds or thousands” throughout their career.
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Recognizing that public safety officers were disproportionately affected by PTSD, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau issued a mandate to the public safety minister in 2015 to create a national action plan on the condition. The following year, the House of Commons Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security held hearings on PTSD and other operational stress injuries.
Lori MacDonald, assistant deputy minister in the Department of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness, told the committee that between 10% and 35% of first responders in Canada develop PTSD, though she acknowledged that its prevalence was “hard to track, partly due to stigma.” The committee also heard testimony that the suicide rate for public safety officers is approximately 30% higher than comparison groups.
The psychological harm experienced by police officers can extend beyond their own personal suffering and become a public safety risk. It can affect job performance and increase the risk of negative interactions with the public and the excessive use of force. It can also compromise a police agency’s staffing capacity—especially in small, underresourced departments like Victoria’s.
In 2021, VicPD senior management and the Victoria City Police Union co-sponsored a study on mental health and well-being in the department. The study had a high response rate, with 79% of the department’s officers participating in it by attending focus groups and completing an online survey. The study found that 20% of VicPD’s 249 officers were on leave, many as a result of “mental health challenges.” Of those still on the job, 22% had clinical symptoms of PTSD.
With so many of its officers on leave due to mental-health injuries,VicPD wasn’t meeting its minimum staffing requirements, according to Simon Fraser University criminology professor Curt Taylor Griffiths, who led the research team. As a result, the uninjured officers were overworked, leading to burnout. “So it's kind of a vicious cycle,” Griffiths says.
The study revealed something else disturbing: the majority of officers who participated in it described their workplace culture in negative terms, using such words as “toxic,” “micromanaged,” and “crumbling.” Sixty-nine percent of the officers said the department doesn’t have a “respectful workplace.”
The study implicates the department’s senior leadership in the discontent, revealing that “for a variety of reasons, there is a disconnect between the third floor, where the senior management offices are located, and the first floor, where the patrol constables and specialty unit officers are situated.” Officers reported feeling unsupported and undervalued. A “significant number” indicated that the department “did not value members’ mental health.” The study also found a “pervasive sense” among officers that the senior management team “did not act in the best interest of the membership.”
Those findings hardly surprised Brookes. “To say [senior managers] have been less than supportive is giving them more credit than they’re due.”
Brookes is among five VicPD officers and former officers with PTSD who spoke with me about their struggles.
They all say they’re perplexed as to why Chief Const. Del Manak hasn’t made the mental health of VicPD’s officers more of a priority during his tenure, given his personal experience with a suicide in the department. They recall that in September 2007, Manak, who was HR inspector at the time, was the last person to speak with Officer Daniel Bouchard before Bouchard killed himself. Yet, they say, Manak seems to have had a “blind spot” when it came to the psychological distress of VicPD members. (Manak told me he’s “always prioritized mental health.”)
Together, the officers who spoke out paint a picture of a department that has failed to treat mental-health injuries with the same level of concern and seriousness as physical injuries. Even worse, they say, those injuries are exacerbated by the workplace culture at VicPD—a place where cronyism, rather than merit, determines whose careers advance and whose don’t, and where white officers and officers of colour seem to face different degrees of accountability.
Against that backdrop, some members have found it easier to “take a knee”— to step away from their jobs—than to stay and fight for accommodations. “We’re the champions of showing up,” Sgt. Peter Gill says. “We show up, regardless of the fact that we see something traumatic. You’ve got to wonder, what is it that's causing individuals who are the champions of showing up to say, ‘I can't do it anymore?’”
Gill has been on leave from VicPD since March 2021. Recently, as part of his exposure therapy for PTSD, he’s been visiting places around the city that trigger him—Beacon Hill Park, Douglas Street, Centennial Square. Each has a specific traumatic association; some have multiple: Fights. The aftermath of a shooting. Suicides. An ambush on officers. A fire that engulfed a man who was living in a van.
The one place he can’t bring himself to revisit, though—the place that he’s actively avoided—is the police department itself. He tells me his heart races even thinking about stepping inside. “I just feel utterly, utterly betrayed,” he says.
Gill joined VicPD in 1996. Policing seemed like the perfect career for him. It aligned with values integral to his Sikh faith—among them, serving the community and fighting for justice. He became a certified instructor in the use of force and, in 2018, was promoted to sergeant. Over the course of his career, he received numerous commendations, recognized for such acts as implementing a crime reduction strategy related to public disorder, locating a child and her abductor, and saving the life of a man in cardiac arrest. He received a Governor General medal in 2017 for 20 years of exemplary police service.
A few years later, the department accused him of neglect of duty following an incident he believes he handled properly.
Research has shown that what officers experience inside their police department can be as critical to their mental health as what they experience in the field. In 2009, the Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease published an article by researchers who studied the relationship between work environment and PTSD after one year of policing. They found that a police officer’s work environment is more strongly associated with PTSD symptoms than either work-related critical incident exposures or negative life events that are unrelated to policing. The researchers also found that “a compassionate work environment becomes a protective factor that arguably shields police officers against the development of PTSD.”
A recent survey of the existing research on police and psychological stress found that “organizational stressors appear to be the primary cause of the stress process in police officers.” Organizational stressors, according to the VicPD study, include “poor leadership, a lack of transparency in the promotion process, and a perceived lack of support from supervising officers.”
For Gill, it was the organizational stressors, or workplace culture, that got to him more than the traumatic exposures on the job. A police sergeant on leave describes Gill as “highly ethical,” but says he’s not someone other officers tend to protect. “He’s not been in the right club from day one,” she says.
Several officers told me that department members receive unequal treatment. There’s an A Team and a B Team, they said, and if you’re on the A Team—the criteria for which are unclear—you’re more likely to have a better work experience and more opportunities for advancement.
The VicPD study echoes those concerns, with officers anonymously describing the department as having a “cliquey” environment and “distinct social groups.” Working at VicPD “often feels like being back in high school,” an officer told the researchers. Another called the process for promotion “fake,” adding, “People are promoted on their relationships and not on their performance.”
Several officers told me that only A-Teamers make it onto the Emergency Response Team (ERT). It’s a sought-after placement whose members are part of an integrated regional policing unit, the Greater Victoria Emergency Response Team. They undergo specialized weapons training and respond to dangerous, high-risk situations, such as hostage negotiations, explosive-material detection and disposal, and the recent bank robbery in Saanich.
To be selected for the team, officers must demonstrate physical fitness beyond that expected of regular patrol officers and pass a course on skills and tactics. An unspoken requirement seems to exist, too. “That team, in and of itself, has a say in what other members may get on it,” Brookes says. “It's not just merit from passing the course, there's also a social component of being accepted by the group.”
The way the social component has played out, it’s predominantly white men who get the coveted ERT placements. The perks of inclusion seem to go beyond membership. A BIPOC constable, who asked not to be named out of fear of retaliation, told me, “If you make it onto the ERT, you’re going to be promoted, and they’ll do whatever they can to promote you.”
Half of the spots in the last promotional competition went to current or former ERT members. Manak denies that favouritism affects the process. “Usually what we do find, though, is sometimes it’s the hard-charging, motivated individuals who apply to ERT. Even if they weren’t on ERT they would probably be successful,” he says, adding that ERT members are “self-driven” in developing their skills and leadership ability.
Of the officers and civilian employees who participated in the VicPD study, only 18% agreed that the department promotes effective leaders; less than half agreed that departmental decisions are made “using a process that is as transparent as possible.”
The perception of “organizational justice” in a police agency is important to officers, according to the VicPD study’s findings, and the extent to which they feel that the department treats them fairly, is supportive of their work, is concerned about their health and well-being, and is transparent in the promotion and performance assessment processes “may have a significant impact” on their health and well-being.
Brookes says he’s observed little transparency regarding promotional decisions, with senior management offering up vague reasons for holding someone back.
Gill applied for promotions every couple of years, beginning in 2009.
When Brookes considers the possible reasons for why, time and again, the department chose not to promote Gill, he can’t think of any good ones. “Peter is a very stand-up guy,” Brookes says. “He's very passionate. He has very high standards and expectations of himself. He always has the extra effort for helping other people.”
After seeing Gill repeatedly denied promotions, Brookes began to think the problem lay outside Gill’s job performance.
“The race aspect definitely factored in for a lot of how people viewed him,” Brookes says. Brookes also believes that it factored into "decisions with regards to his promotion or opportunities.”
Brookes, who is white, received anti-racism leadership training through the Inter-cultural Association of Greater Victoria in 2003. That same year, he developed and facilitated the Youth Combating Intolerance initiative (which later became Youth for Change and Inclusion), a partnership between police, schools, and the community that brought students from a variety of backgrounds together for an annual four-day conference to explore topics such as internet bullying, homophobia, immigration, discrimination, and social justice issues. The Canada Race Relations Foundation recognized the initiative in 2012 as a “best practice” for governments in combating racism.
Brookes’s concern that race played into Gill’s treatment is bolstered, he says, “when I look at the treatment of some of the other people that are minorities that definitely didn't get the same fair shake as many others—and that were treated moreso as a checkbox of a hire rather than somebody to bring that other cultural element into the department.”
Gill says, in declining his promotion, senior management claimed that his report reviewing skills weren’t up to par. But he says it was not a concern that anyone in the department had ever bothered to previously raise with him or document.
The officers who spoke with me said that ERT members are not only a shoo-in for promotions, courses, and opportunities that round out their policing experience, the department tends to put them on a “protective pedestal” when it comes to discipline.
Gill finally made it to the final interview stage in 2017. He was not selected for a promotion that year, but ERT member Brent Keleher was.
The fact that Keleher, who is white, had previously faced two assault charges—stemming from a 2008 arrest of two men for public intoxication—didn’t seem to matter.
Under the Police Act, officers working for municipal departments in BC can be held to account for conduct that breaches public trust—even if the conduct occurred while they were off-duty and even if it didn’t violate the criminal code. Any conduct that’s likely to “discredit the reputation” of the department—whether it’s abuse of authority or unethical behaviour—can be the subject of an investigation under the Police Act.
Investigations are monitored by the Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner (OPCC), an independent oversight body. Those that are deemed to be in the public interest can be handled internally or farmed out by OPCC to another police agency. When an investigation is complete, a senior officer, acting as a “discipline authority,” reviews the findings and holds a disciplinary hearing. If the police complaint commissioner disagrees with the verdict on whether misconduct occurred or with any resulting disciplinary or corrective measures, the commissioner can appoint a retired judge to review the case. That judge, known as the adjudicator, has the power to impose a different finding or disciplinary action.
Although VicPD substantiated allegations of excessive force against Keleher and another officer for the 2008 incident, the department did not recommend criminal charges—just a written reprimand and managerial advice on abuse of authority and inappropriate language. OPCC, however, referred the case to the Crown for potential criminal prosecution.
In early 2012, shortly before Keleher’s trial was scheduled to begin, the Crown stayed the charges because one of the complainants couldn’t be located and another preferred that the matter not proceed, according to the BC Prosecution Service.
Police Act findings that are older than five years aren’t supposed to be used against officers during the promotional process, according to Brookes. “In reality,” he says, “it factors in, it just gives [senior management] the ability not to necessarily use it. If you're on the B Team, it would factor in as an undercurrent.”
In June 2017, a BC Supreme Court judge found that Keleher had negligently misrepresented the state of his property in a real-estate transaction by not disclosing the possibility of chemical contamination. The buyers felt duped and told the civil court judge that they would not have purchased the property if they’d known about the possible contamination. Keleher was ordered to pay $95,000 in damages.
Brookes says senior management was aware of the judgment against Keleher by the fall of 2018, because that’s when Brookes informed a deputy about it. “To have that kind of judgment against somebody in a civil process, and for that person to be in charge of the fraud section as a sergeant, it was just very odd to me,” Brookes says.
Yet Keleher’s conduct in that case does not appear to ever have been the subject of a Police Act investigation. “They did whatever vetting they felt they needed to do,” Brookes says of senior management, “and [decided] that there was no concern.”
VicPD had recently opened a different Police Act investigation into Keleher’s off-duty behaviour—for an alleged sexual assault that occurred in Vancouver in May 2018. The police complaint commissioner moved the investigation to the Vancouver Police Department, which was also conducting a criminal investigation. After the Crown declined to lay charges against the newly minted sergeant, the Vancouver Police Department determined that there wasn’t sufficient evidence to support a finding of misconduct.
But the police complaint commissioner thought the case deserved a closer look. The retired provincial court judge who was appointed to review it determined that there was indeed evidence to substantiate the discreditable conduct allegation. The judge, however, changed his mind after the disciplinary proceeding, due to insufficient evidence of a crime.
Unsatisfied with that verdict, the woman who’d reported being sexually assaulted requested a public hearing, so she and other material witnesses could testify and provide evidence. The commissioner agreed to grant one, as misconduct can occur without criminal behaviour.
Retired Court of Appeal Justice Wally Oppal adjudicated the hearing, and he determined that the sexual contact between Keleher and the woman had occurred without her consent. “Moreover, she lacked a capacity to consent,” Oppal wrote, since she was intoxicated to the point that she was “barely aware” of her circumstances. Oppal found “no evidence direct or indirect that could lead one to the conclusion that Sgt. Keleher had an honest but mistaken belief that she consented,” and concluded on Aug. 12, 2022, that Keleher, on a balance of probabilities, had committed an act of “discreditable conduct.”
Keleher never lost the support of VicPD. He remains a sergeant in charge of the financial crimes unit.
He did receive a 30-day suspension, the maximum possible under the Police Act, in October. Oppal noted several mitigating factors in his disciplinary decision. Among them: strong departmental support, including from Chief Manak, who’d sung Keleher’s praises as an investigator and conveyed his belief that Keleher was remorseful and that “the incident that gives rise to these proceedings would not be repeated.” Another mitigating factor, according to Oppal’s decision, was that Keleher “had no history of misconduct as a police officer.” There was no mention of the excessive force finding from the 2008 incident. (When asked about the OPCC findings, disciplinary action, and his tenure at VicPD, Keleher told me, “I’m not in a position to publicly comment.”)
While Keleher, who was already promoted, was being investigated for sexual assault, Gill finally made it through the promotion process. It was 2018, about a decade after he’d first put his name forward, and he appeared sixth on the ranked eligibility list for promotion to sergeant.
First in line was ERT member Marty Steen.
To some, Steen had always seemed to have an easy ride. Several officers told me the department had previously given him a pass for an ethical lapse. Because it hadn’t been dealt with “in the discipline stream,” it didn’t affect his shot at a promotion.
A sergeant on leave told me that ERT members protect each other by turning “a blind eye” to one another’s transgressions: “Like what happened with Marty Steen. It didn't even go to OPCC the first time. They don't want to leave the paper trail.”
The sergeant mentioned that a high-risk offender under Steen’s watch once escaped. Steen had been guarding him at Royal Jubilee Hospital, the sergeant said, and left him unattended to take a personal phone call. What happened next was equally troubling, the sergeant said: “Marty calls me and he's like, ‘Please don't put it on the radio, but I can't find the prisoner.’ I’m like, ‘Are you kidding me? This is a public safety issue.’”A manhunt ensued, and, eventually, the offender was caught. (Steen did not respond to interview requests.)
Shortly before Steen made it to the top of the promotion list, new and troubling information surfaced. The department had sent him to Vancouver for a three-day training conference in February 2018, but word got around that he’d skipped out on a day of the conference. He’d been paid—and had submitted false expense claims—as if he’d attended it in full.
Brookes had significant concerns about the prospect of Steen being promoted. “When I took the matter upstairs,” he says, “they wanted to sidestep it and not necessarily do anything about it without more information.”
After Brookes provided additional, corroborating information to senior management, they still didn’t seem inclined to act—until he threatened to file a complaint with OPCC. “That spurred a little bit more action, where he wound up being confronted,” Brookes says.
The internal investigation that followed substantiated two allegations of misconduct against Steen: “neglect of duty,” because it was discovered that Steen had failed to go to any of the training sessions at the conference; and “deceit,” because he’d provided false or misleading information when he was questioned about his attendance.
Due to Steen’s act of deceit, VicPD Deputy Chief Colin Watson moved to withdraw the promotional offer, characterizing it as a “reduction in rank”—the most severe disciplinary measure under the Police Act after dismissal. But the police complaint commissioner pointed out that stopping Steen from obtaining a higher rank wasn’t actually reducing his rank, and sent the matter over to a retired judge. The judge agreed and imposed an unpaid 20-day suspension instead.
Steen has since been named acting sergeant.
While Brookes points out the contrast between the way the department seemed to value Steen and Gill, Gill points out a contrast in the way the department treated Steen and another officer of colour.
A year after the Steen scandal exploded, First Nations officer Brad Meyer was investigated for discreditable conduct following a verbal argument he’d had with members of the public and RCMP while he was off duty. The incident occurred as he was shoveling snow from around his wife’s car. After passersby and others told him to stop—he was tossing it onto a road and they were concerned he was worsening the conditions for drivers—he became hostile and confrontational, cursing and yelling even after RCMP officers arrived and tried to calm him down, according to the investigation. Meyer didn’t remember speaking to anyone other than police officers and denied yelling, telling investigators that he’s “just loud” when he speaks.
Meyer previously had stormed out of a work-related meeting after a heated argument with a colleague. For that, he was put on administrative leave and ordered to go to counselling. On another occasion, he was pulled over for excessive speeding and given a one-day suspension without pay.
Following its investigation of the snow-shoveling incident, VicPD moved to fire Meyer, who’d since been diagnosed with longstanding PTSD. But a retired judge appointed by the police complaint commissioner didn’t think termination was justified. Instead, he imposed a two-day suspension, noting a recent case in which a Vancouver police officer had received only a verbal reprimand for yelling profanities at other police officers while off duty. He also took into account Meyer’s PTSD, which hadn’t yet been adequately treated.
To Gill, Meyer’s situation revealed something disturbing about VicPD: the department had tried to protect and promote a white officer—Steen—yet had moved to fire a First Nations officer whose transgressions he thought paled in comparison.
He says he confronted Chief Manak about what he saw as a racial disparity in discipline. (Manak declined to share his recollection of the conversation.)
Despite the department’s stated commitment to diversity and inclusion, a goal of which is to ensure that VicPD employees “feel involved, respected, valued, and connected,” Gill, who is South Asian, and another BIPOC officer, who asked not to be named, told me that they routinely endured racist slights and microaggressions in the workplace. In a voluntary internal demographic survey completed last summer, only 5.2% of VicPD’s sworn officers identified as visible minorities and 2.2% as Indigenous (while 15 % of Victoria residents are visible minorities and 4.6 % are Indigenous).
A female sergeant said she, too, was regularly made to feel uncomfortable. “It’s just such a sexualized environment all the time,” she told me. The sergeant worked at the department before, during, and after it was led by disgraced Chief Const. Frank Elsner, who resigned in 2017 after sexually harassing her and other female subordinates and sending inappropriate Twitter messages to the wife of an officer under his command.
The discomfort started early in the sergeant’s career. During a search when she was a recruit, she was tasked with photographing and itemizing the contents of a box of sex toys—an act she eventually learned had no purpose other than to serve as a joke for her male colleagues. She also said that she was treated poorly by a staff sergeant after coming back from maternity leave and that she once took part in a hiring discussion about three female candidates in which Manak, who was then the HR inspector, indicated that he was privileging one candidate over the others because she’d already had children. Manak insists that never happened: “Whether they had children, whether they were expecting, or having a family, or didn't have a family would be irrelevant to the discussion.”
Not long after Gill confronted Manak with concerns about racial disparities in discipline, Gill found himself facing his own disciplinary hearing.
The incident in question occurred on Sept. 23, 2018, after he responded to a canine officer’s request for a sergeant’s presence outside the Rock Bay Landing emergency shelter.
Gill learned at the scene that the officer’s dog had bit a civilian who’d been acting bizarrely. But a security officer emerged from the shelter and told Gill in Punjabi that the bite victim had done nothing to provoke the attack.
Whenever a dog bites a civilian, the department opens an investigation into whether it’s a justified bite, and incidents involving accidental bites are reviewed to determine whether the dog or the handler was at fault. Gill, a certified use-of-force instructor, says he was surprised by the canine officer’s report. It claimed that the civilian’s behaviour was aggressive and erratic and that the officer released his dog, Alpha, on purpose, believing an assault was imminent. Gill characterized the bite in his own report as accidental, because he says that’s what the investigation bore out and the officer had never told him he’d intentionally released the dog. If the bite had been justified, Gill wondered, why hadn’t the officer gone on to arrest the bite victim or told other officers at the scene that the bite victim was arrestable?
The incident came under scrutiny after OPCC received an anonymous complaint that the canine officer had filed a false report. During the investigation, the officer—who’d previously spent seven years as a member of the ERT—claimed that he had indeed told Gill the bite was intentional but that the inexperienced sergeant hadn’t been paying attention. He also said he found it “odd” that Gill had spoken to a witness in Punjabi.
Gill found it odd that the canine officer’s notebook had five pages torn out of it from the day of the incident.
The Police Act investigation was conducted by the Delta Police Department’s Professional Standards Section. It revealed that the canine officer had given shifting accounts of the incident and that his “enormously inconsistent” evidence conflicted with video evidence, witness evidence, and other VicPD members’ evidence. If the canine officer had feared an assault, then some of his actions made no tactical or logical sense, the investigation found. By contrast, the investigator wrote, “Sgt. Gill’s evidence falls in line with what exactly took place at the scene.”
Gill, however, “had a duty as a supervisor on scene to determine what happened” and had failed to report “divergent details of the incident.” The investigator found him, and two others who’d responded to the scene, in neglect of duty.
Gill was also faulted during the disciplinary proceeding for not directly asking the canine officer whether he’d released Alpha on purpose. “Instead of asking a simple question, he made assumptions, that may have been correct, but he failed to ensure that his assumptions (beliefs) were accurate,” the discipline authority wrote in March 2021, substantiating the neglect-of-duty allegation against him.
“I was at a loss [as to] how he got disciplined in that situation,” Brookes says.
The substantiated allegations against the canine officer for abuse of authority and deceit were overturned during the disciplinary proceedings, as it was deemed unclear as to whether the bite had been accidental or intentional. The reason for the confusion had to do with Gill and the other officers at the scene not directly asking the canine officer what had occurred and why. However, the neglect-of-duty allegation against the canine officer was sustained, and Gill says he was removed from the canine unit as a result.
Although Gill received the lightest possible disciplinary measure—advice intended to prevent the misconduct from recurring—he felt burned.
He says his mistrust of the department had grown during the investigation. While it was underway, someone had tried to break into his house. He says he followed the would-be intruder on foot while talking to dispatch and spoke with the officer who responded, but no one from the department ever came to his house to investigate.
During a second attempted break and enter on his property, Gill scared off the suspect and snapped photos of a footprint and other relevant details and then trailed the suspect while calling 911. The former canine officer—who was now an acting sergeant—responded to the scene.
“I shook my head,” Gill says. “I was like, ‘Really?’”
Gill watched the officer detain the suspect, but later learned that the suspect was transported to a shelter without being arrested. When it again appeared that no investigation was occurring, Gill filed a misconduct complaint with OPCC, which the office eventually determined was inadmissible.
“I’m like, ‘That’s not a neglect of duty? But you found me in neglect of duty?’” Gill says.
When Gill’s own neglect-of-duty charge was substantiated in March 2021, he realized he needed to step away from the department. The charge had been grossly unfair, he thought. And if he couldn’t trust the people he worked with to respond accordingly when he was off duty—to protect his home and family—how could he trust them to have his back when he was on duty? Soon after going on leave, he was diagnosed with PTSD.
While the majority of officers who participated in VicPD’s mental-health and well-being study reported that the department provides adequate mental-health support to employees, 82% indicated that they, personally, did not know “how to access mental-health services.” The study also found “a widespread perception that it was up to the officers themselves to take care of their mental health.”
For Brookes, that was certainly the case. He tamped down his distress until he just couldn’t do it anymore. The final straw came a few years after the McDonald’s incident, in September 2017, when he found himself at the scene of another baby’s death.
He knew then that he was operating in an injured state. It wasn’t good for him. It wasn’t good for the department. And it wasn’t good for the public. Continuing on in that state, he knew, would also set a bad example for those under his watch. He reached out to HR and his union, looking for guidance. What happens now? What does the path to recovery look like? What steps would he need to take?
“The department never sat down with me,” he says. “It was all left to me to figure out what that path looked like.”
It seemed an impossible task. “PTSD isn’t like a broken bone, where it’s straightforward injury repair and recovery time,” he says. “So to have somebody who is in that state of suffering, to expect them to navigate what’s in their best interest, it isn’t realistic.”
A sergeant who requested anonymity tried, to no avail, to get help from the department before she reached her breaking point. She says that it seemed as if her PTSD was seen as “a weakness of my mind or weakness of me,” and that she has no doubt a physical injury would have been taken more seriously.
She notes that the VicPD officers who were injured in the recent bank robbery shootout received an outpouring of “person-to-person support,” with meal deliveries, generous financial assistance through a fundraising campaign, well wishes, and visits from fellow department members—while members on leave for PTSD tend to feel forgotten. In a recent episode of the Victoria City Police Union’s True Blue podcast, Const. Todd Mason, who suffers from both mental and physical work-related injuries, spoke of receiving “massive” support from his colleagues, the union, and the department, after he was run over by a man driving a stolen vehicle. “I felt the love from everybody,” he said, though he added that he still felt alone with the trauma.
Unlike many officers in distress, the sergeant, who worked in the sex crimes unit, knew she needed help and tried to get it. She says she asked, among other things, for more human resources, so those on her team who were working the emotionally hard cases could have a lighter load: “I fought tirelessly. I was constantly saying, ’This work is hard on our souls, it’s hard on our hearts, it's hard on us, and we need support, we need this, we need that.’ And nothing. Nothing, nothing, nothing.”
One day she caught herself puzzling over the details of a plan to kill herself, wondering where she could go to crash her car so it would look like an accident.
To save herself, she went on leave.
Many officers don’t seek out help or take advantage of it, even when it’s available. The VicPD study found that concerns about stigma and confidentiality created barriers to external mental-health services, and that confidentiality concerns were “especially high” when it came to the department’s critical incident stress management debriefings, which are offered to officers after exposure to trauma or significant stress.
Members of VicPD’s critical incident stress management team (CISM) receive special training to help their peers navigate the aftermath of exposure to trauma.
After the baby died at McDonald’s, Brookes attended a debriefing intended to mitigate stress with his staff sergeant, watch commander, a CISM team member, and others who’d been at the scene. He says neither the CISM team member nor any one else who attended the debriefing ever “did any follow-up.”
The International Association of Chiefs of Police, to which Manak belongs, recognizes that negative responses to traumatic incidents might not develop immediately and that some officers might not be forthcoming about their mental-health challenges. That’s why the organization recommends that police agencies encourage co-workers and supervisors to be aware of potential negative responses to traumatic incidents, to provide specific guidance when such responses are identified, and to recognize that “inadvertent re-traumatization” can occur from standard policies, procedures, and interventions.
The association also recommends offering resiliency training on a regular basis so officers can develop the necessary coping skills “to respond to stressful or traumatic incidents in a healthy, adaptive manner” and mindfulness training to “help employees live fully in the present moment, while countering the tendencies to relive past events or to worry about potential events.”
The urgent need for change is well-established.
“Police organizations are beginning to acknowledge that they are now facing a mental health crisis of epic proportion and to combat this crisis a fundamental change in the police culture must occur,” wrote the authors of a 2021 study in the Journal of Police and Criminal Psychology.
But overall, VicPD’s efforts to support department members with mental-health struggles have been less than robust. The recent VicPD study highlighted the absence of a wellness coordinator, a peer-to-peer counselling program, formal processes for officers to disclose mental-health injuries, and a protocol for members who do disclose. “The gaps in the department’s capacity to have both a preventative and response program for officers experiencing mental health issues can be directly tied to a lack of resources,” the study found.
The department required its senior managers to participate in the study, and some of them communicated a sense of powerlessness and frustration. They said anti-police rhetoric and the lack of a collaborative relationship among the department, the municipal council, and the police board were taking a toll. “We’re so focused on these external battles,” one senior manager said, “yet we fail to focus on how we deal with our members internally.”
For officers in certain sections, the department mandates yearly check-ins with a mental-health counsellor. “The only unit in the department that doesn't go for mandatory check-ins is your frontline patrol people, which I find absolutely ludicrous,” Const. Mason said on the True Blue podcast, adding, “They see the worst. They're the first ones to walk in on everything and anything, and that's where a lot of that trauma comes in.” By the time they feel they need help, he said, “They're very far gone.”
Until recently, VicPD’s main proactive offering has been a program called the Road to Mental Readiness. The program consists of four hours of training and education, along with booster training every three years. Developed in 2007 for the Canadian Armed forces and later adapted for municipal policing, it aims to help officers learn coping strategies for resilience, become aware of their own and others’ mental-health problems, and reduce stigma.
Recent research, however, has cast doubt on its effectiveness when it comes to resiliency. At most, the program “begins conversations and helps reduce stigma,” says CIPSRT’s Nick Jones.
In the absence of national guidelines for best practices, police agencies across Canada employ a wide variety of mental-health and wellness programs. Most of the programming purporting to improve outcomes hasn’t been rigorously evaluated. “I’m not saying throw the baby out with the bathwater in any way, shape, or form,” Jones says. “But there's also a lot of really crappy programs out there that make claims that they shouldn't be making.”
Getting it right is important. PTSD is known to affect the brain’s function and structure and to impair decision-making and problem-solving abilities. It can also lead to a heightened anticipatory stress response. As policing requires rapid life-or-death decision making, officers with untreated mental-health injuries are not only working at a disadvantage—they could be putting the public at risk. A 2020 study of more than 1,400 police officers in Texas found that “both environmental and organizational stress was significantly related to verbally abusing citizens and use of unnecessary force while making an arrest.” Another study shows a link between abusive practices in policing and PTSD, though it acknowledges that more research is necessary to determine the exact nature of the association—for example, whether PTSD can develop in police officers as a result of perpetuating abuse. Regardless, the authors concluded that their findings “suggest that mental-health interventions for police officers may both mitigate health symptoms among police officers and help to prevent police abuse against civilians.”
Efforts are underway to gain a better understanding of what works and what doesn’t when it comes to mental-health initiatives. Jones points to a promising longitudinal study of RCMP officers led by University of Regina psychology professor Nick Carleton. The study is looking at a proactive system to mitigate post-traumatic stress injuries, starting mental health and wellness programming at the very beginning of an officer’s career. “They’re integrating different components of mental health and wellness into all aspects of the recruit training,” Jones says.
The need for more evidence-based research on post-traumatic stress injuries (PTSI) in public safety personnel became obvious during the 2016 House of Commons hearings. In the wake of those hearings, the federal government committed $30 million to support research and treatment of PTSI in public safety officers and first responders.
With some of that funding, CIPSRT launched a five-year pilot project that collects much-needed research on PTSI in public safety personnel while providing internet-delivered cognitive behavioural therapy. The project is offered in conjunction with weekly sessions with a mental-health clinician. Because access to it doesn’t require a referral or even an employer’s knowledge, it may get around concerns from officers that they’ll face ridicule or be sidelined for seeking mental-health treatment.
The clinician component is funded by the provinces and territories. At this point, only a few provinces have signed on, and BC isn’t one of them. But public safety personnel in any province or territory still have access to the self-directed internet-delivered therapy.
The institute also operates a federally funded Knowledge Exchange Hub, which makes relevant academic research accessible to public safety personnel, through webinars, research papers, and policy briefs.
The VicPD study highlights the therapy research project and the knowledge hub as possible resources for department members, though the federal funding for both is expected to end in early 2023.
The VicPD study also points senior management and union officials to emerging evidence of effective approaches (among them, resiliency training, individual therapy, mindfulness, and self-regulation), details common features of successful programs (spousal support, dedicated budgets for programming, union participation, etc.), and singles out programs in Indianapolis and San Diego as possible models.
Warning that VicPD was “running close to the edge in terms of being able to ensure the safety and security of community residents,” the study’s authors advised the department to create a strategic plan, or mental-health and well-being “roadmap,” and provided numerous specific recommendations for how the department could better protect its members’ mental health and well-being.
The study seems to have acted as something of a wake-up call.
“I read the report multiple times,” Manak says. “I made a tremendous amount of notes.”
Manak acknowledges that the department hasn’t done “a great job over the years to really look at the mental health and well-being of those that are working on the frontlines” and hasn’t “kept up to the pressures that our officers have seen.” Those pressures have increased dramatically since he joined the senior management team in 2006, and he points to street disorder, officers being assaulted at “alarming rates,” and anti-police sentiment as among the stressors that officers are now facing on the job. The response to officers’ needs has been an evolution, he says. “When I look at the job that I've done, of course, I could be better,” he says. “We can all be better in what we do.”
Not long after the VicPD study was completed, senior managers and union officials began sorting the recommendations into stages for implementation, looking at immediate, mid-range, and long-term goals. The department created a Roadmap for a Healthy and Inclusive Workplace, with timelines for putting mental-health and wellness initiatives into place.
On Sept. 21, nine months after the VicPD study findings were released, the department announced that it would be hiring a psychologist and occupational health nurse to work on contract. The nurse will be embedded in the human resources division, according to Manak, to advocate for officers with mental-health injuries, so the department can bring them back “in the most sensitive, caring, compassionate way.”
The department is pulling from its wellness budget to fund the new positions; Manak says it will ask the city to fund them next year.
The department also announced that it had launched an 11-member peer-support team, something Gill says a department member suggested “ages ago.” Composed of both officers and civilian employees, the peer team is specially trained to work in conjunction with the CISM team in the aftermath of potentially traumatic exposures. It also provides longer-term support, as well as support unrelated to specific stress-related events.
“We're committed to the wellness of our people,” Manak says, adding, “It's a work in progress.”
But whether VicPD is successful in bolstering the mental health and well-being of its members may depend on whether it also makes effective changes to its workplace culture. Included in the department’s “roadmap” are plans to improve communication between senior leadership and staff and to create an equity, diversity, and inclusion strategy that includes anti-racism training.
For the officers on leave, however, the changes have come too late.
Brookes believes that had he been in a supportive environment—where “somebody is looking out for you and you can trust them”—he would have been able to continue policing. Instead, he was met with indifference: “There was no support, nothing to help grow from an injury.”
The indifference began with his diagnosis for PTSD in November 2017. “The department didn’t acknowledge it at all,” he says. Even worse, he was left on the frontlines, where he was further exposed to another 30 or so gruesome deaths. One day, he arrived at a bloody scene shortly after a woman had slit her own throat, and he witnessed her struggling through her last breaths. Another day, he had to deal with a body, dead for who knows how long, with all its fluids released onto the floor. “That time period was very precarious for me,” he says. “Going into a scene like another death, I didn't know who I would be, necessarily, coming out.”
In July 2018, Brookes’s psychologist recommended that he take a three-month leave. But HR persuaded him to stay on and work light duties, on a part-time basis. He was put in charge of reserves and the front desk. Even those seemingly innocuous assignments were full of triggers—like the time an officer casually invited him to view a cell phone photo of a dead body that had just been discovered.
In a letter dated Jan. 14, 2019, Brookes’s psychologist notified VicPD that he wasn’t doing well. She said that his mental health was declining and that he needed to be immediately relieved of all duties. “There are significant symptoms and risk factors that are now being triggered by the work environment,” she wrote to Inspector Penny Durrant. “He is experiencing severe psychological and somatic reactions to being exposed to these triggers, including suicidal thoughts.”
Brookes turned the letter over to the HR department and stepped away from the career he loved. Despite the letter’s clear warning that he had thoughts of killing himself, he says the department made no effort to relieve him of his service weapon—which Manak says would have been against protocol.
About two months after officially going on leave, he realized he could walk into the building at any time, take his gun out of his locker, and use it against himself. To prevent that from happening, he made a special trip to the department one day and handed the gun over to the property and supply department. That afternoon, he says, he received a text from a new staff sergeant in HR, asking if he was OK. It was the first time since he’d been on leave that anyone from the department had checked in with him.
Several officers spoke to me about the emotionally painful disconnection that accompanied going on leave. Policing had been part of their identity. It had given them a sense of belonging. It was like a family, albeit a dysfunctional one at times. Even the B Teamers and BIPOC officers, who’d endured a world of frustration, described the blow to their sense of self and their place in the world. When no one from the department seemed to notice or care that they were gone, their connection to a piece of themselves had been abruptly severed.
One sergeant said that a year and a half passed before Chief Manak called to check in on her. An officer who’s worked at VicPD for decades has gone nearly four years on leave without “one call from management, one call from HR.” The officer said, “I know numerous officers that are off that have never been contacted by the department,” adding that the only conclusion he can draw is a heartbreaking one: “They don't give a shit about us.”
Brookes retired from VicPD in August, after almost 27 years of service. It was a decision he says he felt forced into, because the department failed to provide a supportive environment and wasn’t equipped to help him recover from his work-related trauma.
“I am confident that, if my particular scenario had been handled properly, I wouldn’t have been permanently damaged,” he says.
In June, he received an email from the department’s inspector of human resources, detailing his limited options. Acknowledging that Brookes was off work through no fault of his own, the inspector explained that since he was unable return to work even in a “modified capacity,” if he didn’t retire as soon as he became eligible for an unreduced pension, the department would fire him for “frustration of contract.”
If that were to happen, he’d lose out on sick leave payments and retirement severance— amounting to more than $40,000, he says.
For the last couple of years, Brookes has been in a retraining program through WorkSafe, learning graphic design. He has long understood that he can’t go back to active duty, but he’d been hoping to hold off on retiring until he completed the retraining program and was better equipped to find new employment.
Two years ago, Brookes moved from Cordova Bay to North Saanich, where he has cultivated what he calls a “therapeutic environment.” His house, topped with solar panels, sits at the end of a cul-de-sac, on an acre of land that’s been carefully constructed to inspire a sense of calm and peace.
In this tranquil oasis, he grows hops and cuts and mills his own wood. Two miniature ponies, Buddy and Buttons, roam the property, along with his golden retrievers, Lexi and Juno.
On a recent September morning, Brookes sat at a small table outside, appreciating the view. His backyard borders a large bean-shaped pond. Although the pond belongs to a North Saanich park, it has no public access; Brookes and his family have it all to themselves. Brookes built an aeration system for it, and he harvests the duckweed from its surface to use as fertilizer.
He has done his best to control his environment, to make it a buffer from the rest of the world. “Being lost in here,” he told me, “is a lot nicer than anywhere else.”
But he knows the threat posed by his work-related injury is far from over—that intrusive thoughts could unsettle him at any moment, even though he remains in counselling.
He has accepted that he has a lifelong injury. And he understands that even police officers who are on leave and have the benefit of mental-health treatment still sometimes die by suicide. “I have to be vigilant of falling down that path,” he said. “And so it's a concern for me. And I know that if I got up early in the morning and decided to go to pick up some milk in Sidney, and my wife got up and I wasn't home, she would be very concerned for me.”
Correction: Photo captions previously identified the uniform as belonging Paul Brookes. It belongs to Peter Gill.