Depressed, suicidal police constable a safety concern for colleagues

OPP followed long process to accommodate constable’s mental health issues but didn’t account for health and safety issues for others

The Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) failed to meet its obligations for ensuring a safe workplace and to accommodate disability in its attempts to integrate a constable suffering from depression and suicidal thoughts back into the workplace.

In late 2011, a constable with the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) highway safety division in Barrie, Ont., developed mental health issues following the breakup of her marriage. The constable — referred to as X in the arbitration decision — had joined the OPP in January 1995. She had a strong performance record, particularly in traffic enforcement that was her focus. She was a trained intoxilyzer technician, adept at taking breath samples from impaired drivers. However, her mental health issues worsened — causing her to become confrontational with co-workers and to develop inappropriate feelings towards her supervisor.

Constable X began crying at work, felt targeted, depressed, and angry, and that everyone had turned against her. She went on light duties in January 2012 due to knee problems, but her depression worsened and she began having suicidal thoughts. In February her doctor thought she might be suffering from major depressive disorder and provided a note saying she should be off work for one month. Shortly after, she attempted suicide by taking sleeping pills and attaching a hose to her car. She survived the attempt and was approved to return to work in April by her doctor. An independent medical examination (IME) — required by the OPP —  indicated she wasn’t ready to return to work.

X attempted suicide a second time in November 2012. The attempt was unsuccessful again, but she continued to experience depression and suicidal thoughts. She received various treatments, including at a residential health centre, but she tried to kill herself near the end of her stay there.

 

Long road for return to work

The OPP received a note from X’s doctor in June 2014 saying her mood had stabilized and she could return to work on a graduated basis, but she was soon taken to hospital for suicidal thoughts. The OPP contacted the doctor with questions to help determine X’s ability to work, outlining concerns about the safety of other officers, co-workers, and members of the public. The doctor replied that X had “made good choices to avoid suicide attempt” and could return to work with part-time administrative work to start.

More back-and-forth communication continued, as the OPP remained concerned about the safety of X coming back to work, particularly since she continued to suffer from depression. By February 2014, X’s doctor said she had been stable without suicidal thoughts for four months and was able to return to work on a gradual basis. However, the OPP required an IME before planning her return to work.

The IME was conducted in April 2014 and the examiner concluded that X had “major depressive disorder, recurrent, in remission” and “evidences characteristics of borderline personality disorder.” However, he felt X could return to work gradually but not front-line duties at first, with no concerns over carrying a firearm or a risk to the safety of others, as long as she took the proper medications and received regular psychiatric follow-up.

X returned to work on July 14, 2014, performing administrative duties on day shifts only. She moved to full-time hours on Sept. 4 and was scheduled to participate in “block” training in January 2015, as was necessary to return to her duties as a front-line constable.

In the fall of 2014, X experienced mental health crisis and suicidal thoughts returned. However, she proceeded with the training in January.

During the block training, she had some difficulties with a panic attack and fits of crying, but she was approved for use-of-force options and returned to work as a constable in Barrie.

 

Colleagues nervous and stressed

Within a short time, however, X began feeling that the other team members disliked her and were backstabbing her. The other constables who worked with her began feeling uneasy and stressed, with one feeling like he “had to walk on egg shells” around her be “on guard” so she wouldn’t misconstrue his actions. The colleague began wearing body armour and his gun at all times in the office and felt the office became “toxic.”

In February 2015, X posted an article about toxic law enforcement bosses on Facebook with a photo of her former sergeant. This concerned her colleagues, as they took this to mean her prior issues hadn’t been resolved and she still held resentment.

On March 21, 2015, X responded to an erratic driving complaint. X completed the standard field sobriety test and arrested the driver for impaired driving, though another officer on the scene and witnesses didn’t detect signs of alcohol or impairment. At the station, another constable didn’t detect any evidence of impairment and wasn’t comfortable doing a breath test, but X became “visibly upset.” This led to X shouting at the constable and her sergeant. Eventually, the individual was released without charges.

The constable filed a complaint against X with the OPP professional standards bureau about X’s behaviour and X also filed a complaint against the constable about “unprofessional and discreditable conduct towards a co-worker by interfering with an investigation.”

The professional standards bureau exonerated the constable but found X was neglectful in her duty for failing to properly investigate an impaired driving incident and to follow proper procedures.

Over the next few months, X’s mental health deteriorated. She often said she wasn’t okay and hinted at suicidal thoughts. This development and the March 21 incident increased concerns among the Barrie enforcement team about X’s mental health as well as the impact it might have on their safety. One officer emailed the sergeant saying “recent events in the workplace are making it increasingly stressful and difficult for members of our unit, who have personal safety concerns.” These concerns were passed on to OPP command staff and human resources, but the superintendent said that if team members complained about working with X, they should include a request for transfer with their complaint.

The other constables continued to feel nervous but nothing was done until July 2015, when the OPP requested additional health information from X’s psychiatrist. X was put on administrative duties pending the return of the information, which upset her.

In late July, the psychiatrist cleared X to return to front-line police officer duties for the next few months, but around the same time X was interviewed by the professional standards board, which made her feel like everyone was against her and her career was being destroyed. On Aug. 2, she intentionally overdosed on medication in the office and was found by a colleague beside another colleague’s desk. X also left suicide notes to two sergeants.

X survived this latest suicide attempt, but the other members of the Barrie enforcement team were angry because their concerns for their safety and X’s had not been heeded by the OPP. They filed grievances against the OPP for failing to respond to their health and safety concerns, and putting the health and safety of both them and X in jeopardy. They also claimed the superintendent threatened them with transfer if they complained, which was a threat of reprisal for exercising rights under the Ontario Occupational Health and Safety Act. The constable involved in the March 21 incident also filed a grievance for failing to accommodate X on the basis of her disability and subjecting him to the professional standards investigation.

The arbitrator noted that the superintendent’s comment about members of the Barrie team to request a transfer if they complained about working with X could have been interpreted negatively, as they all had worked to be part of the team and moving to regular patrol would be a demotion. However, the arbitrator felt the superintendent meant to indicate that the OPP wanted to move on from past problems and accommodate X and her desire to return to her position. A suggestion to transfer to another detachment would be a solution to unhappiness with the environment in Barrie, said the arbitrator.

However, the arbitrator determined that the OPP failed to follow both its disability accommodation policy and its occupational health and safety policy.

The arbitrator found that in developing X’s return-to-work plan, the OPP didn’t allow her co-workers to voice their observations and concerns and put X back to work without consulting them. In addition, the OPP didn’t follow all recommendation for ongoing psychological treatment.

The OPP’s accommodation policy required multiple return-to-work plans at different stages, but the OPP only had one plan for the graduated return to work. Once X resumed full-time duties in September 2014, there was no further plan or safety plan. The policy also required the police force to address co-worker co-operation issues, said the arbitrator.

“The OPP knew, from (the psychiatrist’s) report, that X’s illness was recurrent and in remission at the time of his report. It knew that she could have a ‘relapse of her symptoms of depression’ and that it was ‘likely Ms. X will experience some degree of stress upon her return to work,’” the arbitrator said. “Yet it inexplicably determined that there were no concerns about X’s returning to (Barrie enforcement team) and full patrol duties, once she passed block training.”

The arbitrator found the failure to accommodate X properly put extra stress on her colleagues, who felt silenced by the perceived threat from the superintendent. In addition, the failure to address the other constables’ concerns was a failure to live up to its health and safety obligations, given that X increasingly felt everyone was against her and she had multiple suicide attempts. There was no guarantee X wouldn’t attempt suicide with a gun in the future, said the arbitrator.

“The OPP’s return of X to full patrol duties failed to consider fully the risks to her co-worker’s health and safety, or that of the public,” the arbitrator said. “It dismissed such concerns, in part, on the basis that she had only tried to harm herself, not others, and because she had not exhibited any signs of violence.”

The arbitrator ordered the OPP to pay seven of X’s fellow constables on the Barrie enforcement team $5,000 each for the violation of their right to a safe and healthy workplace and $7,500 to X’s sergeant.  It also determined the OPP and its union should develop a protocol for addressing disability management.

 

For more information see:

• OPPA and Ontario Provincial Police, Re, 2018 CarswellOnt 14884 (Ont. Arb.).

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