After recent Hollywood claims brought sexual assault into the social media spotlight, a former Waterloo Regional Police Superintendent is reminding us that this is also an issue in our region.
Barry Zehr is one of three complainants who have launched a $167-million sexual harassment lawsuit against the police service. He hopes building a national advocacy group will help change our local police culture.
“Women are done. No more of just acknowledgement, now is time for action.” Zehr says this is the mood following the Harvey Weinstein allegations and the social media campaign #MeToo.
He says men need to publicly stand by these women who are coming forward, and become more trauma-informed and supportive of victims and survivors, and has started to use #ISupportSurvivors on social media. “There are many victims and survivors who need our voices and they need them now.
Now it’s time to take a leadership role in addressing the issue. The systems are broken,” says Zehr. “I am recommending and our newly formed association is recommending, that there must be a review of the structure and the processes of police oversight, there’s got to be a consistent, effective, and truly independent oversight model.”
Zehr says when he and his co-complainants filed their class action lawsuit in June, only five women had ever reached a senior officer level within Waterloo Regional Police Service in 43+ years. At the time he left in April of this year, only two women held senior positions as inspectors. The other 14 senior positions were held by white men.
“Women start their careers the same time as men, and I know many who started the same time as I did,” says Zehr. “Women fall behind early, and they loose ground at every rank in policing. You have to ask yourself, why is that happening?
You have to ask yourself what’s systemic, what’s the problem within?” Zehr adds, “then I think people need to start asking [those questions] out loud, and say ‘I want change.”
Constable Angelina Rivers, former Constable Sharon Zehr, and former Superintendent Barry Zehr want that change now.
“The civil action is really the application of some legal pressure to change this unfortunate side of policing,” says Zehr. “And that takes time, so we’re in the process of forming a National Women in Law Enforcement Association to be a voice for change.”
He says based on his 30 years of policing, 11 of which as a senior officer, that it is naive to assume the private culture of oppression in policing isn’t impacting service to the public, saying “it absolutely does.”
While the advocacy group is in the beginning stages, the three current and former officers say they are ready to take on this leadership role locally and across the country, and want to start to lobby the federal government.