‘Morale went downhill fast,’ former employee says of police watchdog

Employees who left B.C.’s civilian police oversight body say they were worn down by low morale, bullying behaviour by those in charge and inconsistent policies that made investigators look unprofessional in front of the police officers they were investigating.

Accounts from 11 former investigators and employees paint a picture of the Independent Investigations Office as a dysfunctional organization, where workers were bullied or talked down to by chief civilian director Richard Rosenthal, who they say showed little confidence in his staff to investigate police-involved shootings or serious injuries. Most spoke to the Times Colonist on condition of anonymity either because they signed confidentiality agreements for a severance package or because they fear backlash that would limit future job opportunities.

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“It’s just the most negative, toxic environment I’ve been in in my entire life,” said one former civilian investigator who quit the organization. “The way we were treated was brutal.”

The low morale is reflected in the steady stream of employees who have quit or been fired — 17 investigators and five non-investigative staff in the 28 months since the organization was created in 2012.

“It wears on you, for sure,” the investigator said. “The morale went downhill fast and just when you think it couldn’t get any lower, people get fired, someone is getting investigated when they didn’t even know about it.”

Employee concerns, especially about Rosenthal’s style of management, have led to three employee surveys, including one in April 2014 by the B.C. Justice Institute that cost $21,000.

“The strongest negative impression that the interviewers got from the interviewees is the lack of confidence that many employees have in IIO’s senior leadership,” the Justice Institute survey found, according to the draft report obtained by the Times Colonist.

“About half of employees are very critical of senior leadership’s interpersonal styles, decision-making methods and communication of work standards and expectations.

“Many from below the top levels of management state that poor functioning of the organization would be solved if one or more individuals in the top levels of management were removed.”

Former staff also told the Times Colonist that harassment and bullying complaints increased after Rosenthal hired John Larkin as the chief of investigations in April 2014. Larkin, who served in a police ombudsman office in Northern Ireland, faced allegations of discrimination against female police officers while he was a superintendent at the West Midlands Police department, in Coventry, England.

 

However, the Justice Institute survey found no consensus on whom to remove, according to the report, and some managers cited as the problem by some staff were seen by others as effective and essential to the organization.

An August 2013 survey by the Ministry of Justice found that serious issues raised by staff were dismissed or ignored, which contributed to the low morale. Problems included “growing staff dissatisfaction … and their impact on the ability to develop competent senior investigators” as well as concerns that “IIO directors are seen as remaining silent in the face of growing organizational dysfunction.”

Rosenthal has consistently cited a “culture clash” between former police officers and civilians as the reason for the turnover problem. He also said high turnover is typical at any new organization.

But several former employees said Rosenthal fuelled that culture clash by showing a bias against former police officers.

“I think most of the culture rift came from the top,” said one former employee.

“Every former police officer has a target on their back,” said one former investigator, a retired police officer. “In his eyes, everything that’s wrong with our organization is the fault of former police officers.”

The Public Service Agency has provided an executive coach to advise Rosenthal on his leadership style, at a cost of $12,150. The organization is also in the process of hiring a chief administrative officer, with a salary range of $83,190 to $116,465.

“It would be inappropriate for anyone to draw the conclusion that any person receiving such coaching has been deficient in their performance,” the IIO said in a statement. “The Public Service [Agency’s] culture of support of executive coaching recognizes that anyone and everyone, no matter how talented, can benefit from that kind of support.”

Rosenthal would not agree to an interview, but responded to questions through a spokeswoman, who also cited his testimony before a special B.C. legislature committee on Dec. 11.

 

An all-party committee reviewing the IIO heard from a variety of stakeholders to determine whether the goal of having the organization fully staffed by civilians by 2017 is attainable. The B.C. government said from the outset the eventual goal was to have the Independent Investigations Office staffed entirely by civilians, which is in line with recommendations from retired judge Thomas Braidwood, who led the inquiry into the 2007 death of Polish immigrant Robert Dziekanski who was Tasered by RCMP officers at Vancouver International Airport.

“Mr. Rosenthal believes that a review of the 55 public decisions exonerating police officers of criminal acts, sometimes in controversial cases, should be adequate proof that he is not biased against the police nor against former police, who constitute a significant percentage of the IIO staff,” the statement said.

“It should also be pointed out that during his testimony, Mr. Rosenthal suggested a relaxation of the ‘five-year rule’ prohibiting the employment of former officers who have served in B.C. in the five years preceding their employment.

“Mr. Rosenthal would inquire of those making these allegations: If he did, in fact, harbour a bias against former officers, why would he request that the IIO enabling legislation be amended to permit him to hire more retired officers?”

When he testified before the legislature committee, Rosenthal didn’t take any responsibility for the organization’s morale issues. He blamed problems on “a group of disaffected staff who expressed their inclination not to accept the leadership from someone who had any number of characteristics which were not relevant to the performance or the fitness to do the job. So, there were people in the organization who simply said: ‘I wouldn’t have picked this person to be in a leadership or managerial capacity, and I’m not going to listen to them. I’m going to resist whatever instruction we get from them.’ ”

Rosenthal also said there were some employees who refused to accept personal responsibility for what was going on in the organization, which is what required him to “make staffing changes to ensure we were going in that right direction.”

The committee is deliberating and expects to present a report in late February.

NDP justice critic Mike Farnworth said he’s concerned about the high turnover rate at the IIO but has faith in the committee’s report.

One former civilian employee said the steady exodus of investigators has made it nearly impossible for the relatively new organization to evolve.

“The IIO is in a constant state of training and recruiting,” he said. “The people who were brought in to get the IIO up and running and provide the expertise simply aren’t there anymore.”

When Rosenthal was named as the organization’s first chief civilian director, he was lauded as a no-holds-barred critic of abuse of force by police in Portland, Oregon, and Denver, Colorado, after he set up police oversight units in those cities.

However, the Denver police union was fiercely critical of Rosenthal, saying his office treated police unfairly, making them afraid to do their jobs.

Rosenthal kept a plaque in his IIO office that featured a mugshot of a police officer arrested during a corruption case that led to charges against 70 Los Angeles police officers in the Rampart division’s anti-gang section. Rosenthal was deputy district attorney in Los Angeles County at the time and helped expose the corruption.

Many former police officers with the IIO found the mugshot offensive.

Former employees also complained of micromanaging on the part of Rosenthal and an overall lack of confidence in their abilities.

“He had no faith in any of his employees whatsoever to do the job, period,” said one former civilian investigator. Rosenthal was checking in on the investigation at every stage, suggesting new angles or questions.

At other civilian police oversight bodies, such as Ontario’s Special Investigations Unit, the civilian director typically only sees the report at the end of the investigation and makes a decision whether to forward the file to Crown prosecutors, who have the final say on whether to lay charges.

 

Hal Wetherup, a former investigator who agreed to go on the record, said he was brought in to the organization to share the expertise he gained during his 25 years as a major crime detective. But he said there was no formal training structure that allowed him to pass his knowledge on to civilian investigators.

“There wasn’t a willingness or a focus on training those new investigators, especially in light of how quickly they were losing former police investigators,” he said.

“I wanted to make a difference but if you’re not going to make use of my skills, I’ll go somewhere else,” he said. Wetherup left in May 2014 after 13 months with the IIO. Wetherup points to the number of investigators who have left the organization amid frustration and worries about the organization’s future.

“They’ve lost all that expertise and they’ve got to not lose the public support,” he said.

Assistant deputy justice minister Jay Chalke told the legislature committee that the IIO had recently hired a new training co-ordinator and has developed an in-house training program that supplements the training offered by the Justice Institute.

“As such, the IIO is now particularly well suited to deal with any of the consequences of the type of attrition that has been seen in this stage of the organization’s development,” IIO spokeswoman Kellie Kilpatrick said in a statement.

Former investigators also cited inconsistent policies that led to confusion both within the organization and on the part of police departments being investigated.

This was also an issue brought up in the Justice Institute survey, which found “that a lack of clarity on work routines … is one of the areas of extreme frustration for employees at all levels of the organization.”

For example, while the IIO’s mandate is to investigate death or serious injuries at the hands of police, there was never a consistent definition of serious injury.

In one case, the office investigated an incident where a person being arrested suffered a broken little finger. But in another case that involved someone with an identical injury, Rosenthal decided it was not serious enough for the IIO to investigate.

There were also instances where Rosenthal couldn’t decide whether the IIO should take a case, so he sent two investigators to the scene to “poke around.” That created confusion for the police department involved in the incident, which wanted to know whether the IIO was investigating.

“He constantly flip-flopped back and forth around whether we would take [a case] or we wouldn’t,” said one former investigator. “It made us look like fools.”

A civilian investigator who quit the organization worries about how unprofessional this must have looked to the police forces they were investigating.

“The police community is losing confidence in us fast,” she said. “They’re losing confidence in our investigations for sure.”

Addressing this criticism, the statement sent to the Times Colonist on Rosenthal’s behalf said that, since October of 2013, “a jurisdictional assertion matrix” that Rosenthal created “has significantly improved the consistency in decision-making in this regard.”

All of the former investigators who spoke to the Times Colonist said they strongly believe in civilian police oversight and they want the Independent Investigations Office to thrive, but don’t know how that can happen without a major leadership overhaul.

“It’s an organization that has to succeed and yet it loses credibility almost daily,” said one former investigator.

“I would like to see it succeed, but in order for that to happen, the government needs to take action,” said another.

kderosa@timescolonist.com

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