Two mayors responsible for Victoria’s police department are disputing a section of a report by British Columbia’s police complaints commissioner that says they mishandled harassment complaints against a former police chief.
Barb Desjardins, mayor of Esquimalt, B.C., said that while she doesn’t dispute the findings of commissioner Stan Lowe’s review of two investigations and subsequent discipline proceedings involving former chief Frank Elsner, she does object “to the tone and the commentary and allegations within the report.”
“It should be a factual report of what happened, what the results were and what the recommendation is. It should not be commentary and speculation on our actions,” she said.
Lowe could not immediately be reached for comment on the position taken by Desjardins and Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps.
In the report released Sept. 26, Lowe said Helps and Desjardins “predetermined the outcome of the internal discipline process from the outset, and set about navigating a course to allow the former chief to remain in his post.”
Elsner, who resigned in early 2017, was found to have committed eight counts of misconduct, including lying to investigators, encouraging a witness to make a false statement and having unwanted physical contact with two female officers.
Lowe also said Elsner had been “caught in a web of untruths” that began when the former chief sent inappropriate Twitter messages to the wife of an officer in his department.
Attempts to reach Elsner for comment since Lowe’s report was released have been unsuccessful.
Elsner apologized shortly after the public learned an internal investigation was probing inappropriate messages he allegedly sent to the wife of an officer.
In 2016, Elsner petitioned the B.C. Supreme Court to stop investigations against him, saying he was being targeted by a group that wanted him ousted as police chief. The court agreed to limit the scope of the commission’s investigation.
The mayors, in their position as co-chairs of the Victoria and Esquimalt Police Board, hired an internal investigator to look into the complaints about Elsner, Lowe said.
The investigator reported to the mayors that numerous witnesses had made allegations of bullying and harassment, including “inappropriate comments and behaviour towards women,” against the former chief, Lowe’s report said.
“The mayors chose not to expand the investigator’s mandate to include these allegations,” the report said. “On the contrary, the correspondence indicates that they instructed the investigator not to pursue these allegations or consider them in any respect in drafting the investigation report because they were outside the scope of the investigator’s mandate.”
Helps directed a request for comment to a statement posted on her website, in which she said the board followed the advice of its legal counsel in its handling of the Elsner case.
“One of the most upsetting elements of this whole situation is the insinuation that I would protect a man (allegedly) engaged in bullying and harassment,” she said. “I have been working on women’s issues and women’s rights since I was 15 years old. To suggest we were planning to ignore the allegations brought forward by female members of VicPD is simply untrue. It makes no sense. And to those who know me, it’s just not plausible.”
Lowe’s report includes an e-mail exchange between the two mayors dated Dec. 3, 2015, at 2:32 a.m., which it said “rushed to conclude” the investigation because rumours were swirling about the chief.
“I believe for this reason we have to make a decision asap and then call the board to inform them of it,” Desjardins wrote to Helps, according to the report. “Please look at your calendar to see what could be cleared to move things up. This must be top priority in my mind.”
Lowe said “the difference is glaring” when the outcome from the mayors in the internal discipline process is compared to the result of a separate process led by two retired judges.
The mayors’ investigation led to a reprimand, whereas the judges’ process led to suspension, demotion and dismissal.
Desjardins objected to Lowe’s characterization.
“It is absolutely false, it is accusatory and I’m not on trial,” she said. “It is suggesting something that is absolutely false, and we had no opportunity to provide feedback.”
Helps said the mayors also hired an investigator, who was endorsed by the Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner.
Lowe is calling for changes to the Police Act to strip mayors of the power to discipline police chiefs. Desjardins and Helps both said they support the recommendation, but indicated that they’d like a chance to discuss the tone of the report with the solicitor general.
Lowe has recommended that when allegations of misconduct are made against a chief or a deputy chief they should be handled by a discipline authority that is led by a retired judge because of the relationship mayors have with those senior officers.