Toronto police officer gets $85,000 for sexual harassment, discrimination

Officer faced sexualized comments, jokes — and even a forced kiss — from higher-ranking officers

Toronto police officer gets $85,000 for sexual harassment, discrimination

Traditionally male-dominated occupations have been in the spotlight in recent years for workplaces that aren’t always accepting of women. Police forces in particular have been exposed for their normalization of sexism and tolerance of sexual harassment. A female Toronto police officer faced this type of work environment and recently received $85,000 for a campaign of harassment that contributed to mental health issues and ended her career.

A female Toronto police officer has been awarded $85,000 in damages after enduring a campaign of sexual harassment and a poisoned work environment while working in the male-dominated police service.

Heather McWilliam started working as a police officer in Toronto in October 2005. She quickly found success in her job, receiving awards and commendations from the Toronto Police Service (TPS) and accolades for being a dependable, reliable and dedicated police officer.

However, a relatively low proportion of officers in the TPS were women, so McWilliam was usually one of only two or three women in her platoon at any one time, with only two at the most on shift together. Often, she was the only woman present. As a result, there was a tendency toward sexist comments, jokes and behaviour by male police officers that McWilliam and other female officers were pressured to tolerate.

McWilliam was the target of much sexually themed and inappropriate behaviour from male officers in her platoon, including:

  • A staff sergeant — a higher rank than that of McWilliam’s police constable — commented that he would rather see her “in her high brown boots” than her uniform. On another occasion, he told McWilliam that he had been admiring the physical appearance of a female civilian at the front desk and he liked her large breasts and blonde hair.
  • The same staff sergeant commented that he would like to spank her in private over an offence notice that needed to be fixed. After McWilliam made it clear that the comment was unwelcome and embarrassing, the staff sergeant stood in the doorway as she tried to leave and called her name in a raised voice, which he said was an attempt to apologize.
  • The same staff sergeant later commented that he would like McWilliam’s phone number in a “creepy or flirtatious sexual tone of voice.”
  • The staff sergeant asked her in front of a detective whether she preferred him with a goatee or no facial hair and said only her opinion mattered. Afterwards, the detective remarked that it was odd.
  • The staff sergeant started a conversation in the office in which he mentioned that he used to be a “player” and a “ladies man” when he was younger.
  • After a discussion that she used to ride a horse with the RCMP, another constable remarked that “I would like her to ride my horse” followed by most of the other male officers present laughing.
  • At a crime scene, a sergeant showed a detective a photo of McWilliam in a bikini from Facebook and later showed it to others. A few days later, McWilliam saw the photo used as background wallpaper on the sergeant’s computer. He took the photo down after she asked him to do so.
  • In October 2012, a staff sergeant threatened her career in a meeting. McWilliam told a detective sergeant, who invited her to meet him at a bar where he’d be having drinks with other police officers. At the bar, the sergeant of her platoon, Angelo Costa, gave hugs to everyone before he left. When he approached McWilliam, he grabbed her shoulders, pushed his lips onto hers and tried to push his tongue into her mouth. She resisted and felt “disgusted and humiliated.” She didn’t discuss it with anyone present, but she told her mother about it afterwards. She filed a sexual assault complaint with the TPS special investigations unit, but it found no reasonable grounds to the allegation after interviewing some of the people present at the bar but not McWilliam.
  • A staff sergeant handed her a note during a shift that said “You are smokin’ hot.” Some time later, after McWilliam had made a complaint against another staff sergeant, this one approached her and thanked her for not making a complaint about the note because he had “just been joking.”
  • The same staff sergeant who had given her the note told her multiple times that he had watched her on the security cameras while she was in the gym. He also often commented on her clothing, changes in her weight, the way she “liked to party” and that “there must be a lot of men coming and going from her house.”
  • Costa, the sergeant in her platoon who kissed her in the bar, told her multiple times that he wanted to take her for wine and a picnic. He also told her that he was good at oral sex and that he could satisfy her sexually. Another time he whispered in her ear that he wanted to lick her.
  • After learning of a complaint McWilliam made about the staff sergeant’s spanking comment, Costa said he would have been able to resolve the matter “without all of this” and made her feel like other officers were afraid to talk to her.
  • McWilliam suffered a neck injury in November 2013. While she was off work, Costa called her about her choices for vacation leave. When she remarked that it was difficult being off work and not being able to do anything, Costa replied that he could put her neck to good use and laughed. McWilliam was disgusted and changed the subject.
  • In December 2013 or January 2014, Costa demonstrated during parade at the start of the shift, in front of her and 10 male officers, how he would perform oral sex on a woman and then how he masturbated. A short time later, Costa made jokes about engaging in sexual acts with women during parade. Costa, the superintendent, and a staff sergeant then looked over to McWilliam, who put her head down and looked at her notebook.
  • Around the same time, McWilliam was working at the front desk with another female officer. Costa came out of his office and asked the other officer if she was “on her rags” and when she didn’t respond, Costa said “this is how women act when they’re on their rags.” Neither female officer responded to him.

Mental health issues and medical leave
McWilliam went on medical leave in January 2014, receiving workers’ compensation benefits. She was also diagnosed with PTSD. While on leave, the TPS insisted that she received a medical assessment at the medical advisory services office in TPS headquarters. McWilliam didn’t want to go to headquarters as she felt it was a poisoned work environment and her medical restrictions advised against attending locations where she might encounter police officers, so she asked for it to be performed off-site. TPS refused and her superiors ultimately warned her that if she didn’t come to headquarters for the assessment she would be marked as absent without leave.

McWilliam filed a human rights complaint against the TPS and Costa as an individual, alleging that she was subjected to sexual harassment, a poisoned work environment and reprisals because of her sex. She also claimed discrimination because of disability when the TPS failed to properly accommodate her PTSD by requiring her to come to headquarters for the medical assessment.

Costa, the staff sergeants and other police officers denied that many of the incidents happened and claimed any comments were jokes and not meant to make McWilliam feel uncomfortable as a woman. However, for multiple reasons including consistency, motivation and the nature of their accounts, the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal found them to be less than convincing while McWilliam was credible. As a result, the tribunal determined that all of the incidents above happened largely as McWilliam claimed.

The tribunal noted that, in some of the circumstances, the intention was not to sexually harass or harm McWilliam. However, it was well established in law that harassment or harm can happen regardless of intention.

The tribunal also referred to four conditions necessary to establish sexual harassment in employment — the offending party must be her employer or another employee of the employer, the conduct in question was vexatious or ought to be known to be unwelcome, the conduct must occur in the broadly defined workplace and it must be related to McWilliam’s sex.

As far as Costa’s conduct, the first condition was easily met since, as a sergeant, Costa was McWilliam’s work supervisor. The tribunal also found that the forced kiss and the other comments by Costa would be expected by a reasonable person to be unwelcome and, therefore, met the second condition. The comments took place at work and the occasion where the forced kiss took place was a gathering of work colleagues and supervisor, so this fell within the scope of the workplace, said the tribunal. Finally, it was unlikely that Costa would force a kiss or make the same sexualized comments to a man, so his behaviour occurred because of McWilliam’s sex, the tribunal added.

Poisoned work environment
The tribunal also found that the TPS was responsible for creating and fostering a poisoned work environment. Most of the comments and conduct were made or carried out by McWilliam’s supervisors — staff sergeants and a sergeant — who had “a significant degree of power over [McWilliam] and her career prospects” and to whom she was supposed to report harassment incidents. In addition, they represented a pattern of behaviour that was vexatious and unwanted, forcing McWilliam to adapt “various coping practices such as deflecting the comments or playing along for fear of suffering consequences due to the degree of power her sergeants and staff sergeants held over her,” said the tribunal.

However, the tribunal didn’t find evidence of any reprisals that McWilliams claimed happened when she was denied certain assignments. The evidence indicated that she received several opportunities following her complaints and one in particular she didn’t get because it required a “one-for-one” exchange with the other department that wasn’t feasible.

As for McWilliam’s claim of discrimination regarding the required location for the medical assessment, the tribunal agreed. McWilliam’s PTSD was a disability under the Ontario Human Rights Code and she suffered adverse treatment when she was ordered to have her medical assessment performed at police headquarters, despite medical restrictions indicating that doing so could exacerbate her condition.

“Forcing her to attend at [headquarters] despite these restrictions is about as close to the essence of discrimination as one can get,” said the tribunal, adding that the TPS didn’t indicate there would be any undue hardship or even “a major inconvenience” for a doctor to accommodate McWilliam to complete an off-site assessment.

The tribunal determined that the sexual harassment, poisoned work environment and disability discrimination were “significant factors contributing to [McWilliam’s] PTSD and related mental health conditions. The TPS board was ordered to pay McWilliam $75,000 in damages for injury to dignity, feelings and self-respect for its conduct and was jointly and severally liability with Costa for another $10,000 for his conduct. The TPS was also ordered to develop a human rights strategy and associated training for all police officers.

The tribunal denied McWilliam’s claim for lost wages because she received workers’ compensation benefits for her medical leave starting in January 2014.

For more information, see:

  • McWilliam v. Toronto Police Services Board, 2020 HRTO 574 (Ont. Human Rights Trib.).

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