For months, Chris Williams knew the force wanted him out.
Proof of this arrived in the form of an official discharge notice last October, less than three months after the RCMP corporal was released from the hospital following complications from post-traumatic stress disorder.
His is one of dozens of cases in which the RCMP has removed, or is trying to remove, members with disabilities, Global News has learned. An RCMP spokesperson denies a campaign to dismiss members with disabilities, saying the force makes “every effort to accommodate … dismissal is a last resort.”
At that point, Williams, who lives in Kelowna, B.C., had been off duty since February 2017. His recovery took an unexpected backslide when he found himself at a country music concert in Las Vegas on Oct. 1, 2017, during what became the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history.
Instinct kicked in when Williams heard the gunshots. He grabbed at the people nearest to him, pulling them down to the ground while shouting at those around him to take cover.
“Other people around us were being hit by bullets,” he wrote in an affidavit. “We helplessly watched for what seemed like an eternity.”
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Fifty-eight people died and hundreds more were wounded. The tragedy undid nearly every bit of progress Williams had made in treatment and by June of that year, Williams was suffering extreme lows. His meetings with RCMP officials left him increasingly feeling like the force had no place for him.
Depressed, Williams took his gun and drove out to an abandoned forest road to kill himself. He drank, then fired a test shot. While reloading, he accidentally shot himself in the leg.
“Self-preservation kicked in,” he wrote in his affidavit. Williams stanched the blood and called 911. At the hospital a psychiatrist assessed him, and eventually — as Williams was helped onto medications and sought out further treatment — he became resolved to live.
When he was released from the hospital, he was feeling better. Williams wanted to go back to work, although he wasn’t ready and he worried relentlessly about harassment within the force. In October, he was dealt a blow when he received the RCMP’s notice of intent to discharge. The force wanted him out. By early February, he was gone.
Williams is now seeking a judicial review of the RCMP’s decision and says that he is being discharged for his disability. That action, he alleges, is a violation of the Canadian Human Rights Act. His application, filed in the Federal Court of Canada, is the second of its kind filed in recent months. The case is ongoing. A spokesperson for the force said it can’t comment on specifics, but in a letter a government official asked for more time to respond to the claims.
Williams is one of several people alleging that the RCMP has for years wrongfully sought to eject members with disabilities from the force.
Lawyer Sebastien Anderson, whose Vancouver-based firm has provided legal advice to roughly three dozen RCMP officers with disabilities facing similar circumstances, alleges “a conspiracy” on the part of the force. Anderson has successfully helped one Mountie who was let go after suffering from PTSD in the wake of the Mayerthorpe, Alta., shootings that killed four of his colleagues.
A change in job requirements
It has been five years since the employment requirements were changed to allow dismissals on the basis of disability. In that time, the number of medical discharges has nearly doubled, according to a Global News analysis.
The force’s own statistics show the number of medical discharges jumped to 1,122 in the years between 2014-15 and 2018-19 from just 592 officers who left under the same circumstances in a longer period between 2007-8 and 2013-14.
The changes started with a 2013 move by Stephen Harper’s Conservative government, which repealed section 45.27 of the RCMP Act. That section had stayed decisions to discharge or demote a Mountie until their appeal of the decision had been determined.
Its repeal means people fighting their dismissals are left unemployed to wait on what Anderson calls an “absolute farce” of a system — the RCMP’s External Review Committee — that’s known to take years. Jamie Deacon, executive director of the committee, says it “has no comment on any matters that are before the courts.”
In its most recent report, the committee said it’s handling a “significant backload of files” and that its workload projections are continuing to go up, with current referrals from the RCMP exceeding initial projections by approximately half. The RCMP did not respond to questions about the adequacy of the system.
WATCH: Why legislative changes left Mounties ‘no opportunity other than to go to court’
In 2014, then-commissioner Bob Paulson updated employment requirements to clarify the reasons by which Mounties could lose their job, apart from a violation of the Code of Conduct, says Anderson.
The first reason on the list is “having a disability, as defined in the Canadian Human Rights Act.”
Members diagnosed with PTSD or ADHD, or those who have sight issues or joint issues or restrictions such that they can’t wear a uniform or respond to an emergency call out, can be removed from the force on the basis of that disability and be left unemployed by the RCMP while the External Review Committee reviews their case.
In the case of Chris Williams, whose PTSD was made worse during the Las Vegas shooting, he fought his notice of intent to discharge. He argued it wasn’t fair for the RCMP to pave the way to get rid of him on the basis of his lowest moment, the time when he was recovering from surgery for that self-inflicted gunshot to the leg.
“This recent set of urgent deadlines, without consultation, has placed my client in a state that is concerning.”
A spokesperson for the RCMP says it “cannot comment on individual cases or circumstances.”
The psychologist’s words didn’t sway the RCMP, which didn’t even bother to respond, according to documents included in Williams’ court filings. On a Wednesday in early February 2019, Williams woke up to an email saying it was done. He had been medically discharged.
Williams admits it would be easier to just accept the decision and move on. But he’s angry, frustrated, disappointed, and being propelled by a need to see reform.
“There is no accountability,” he says.
“Management just failed to follow the very principles of honesty and integrity — the mission, vision, values that we espouse — and I know there are men and women out there that are suffering as a result of it.”
In 2017, the RCMP launched a disability management and accommodation program. A spokesperson says the program focuses on early intervention, pro-active case management, return-to-work planning, and, if needed, a workplace accommodation.
Having a disability doesn't mean you can't be a cop
Accommodating police with disabilities comes with a unique set of challenges, says Nini Jones, a lawyer with Paliare Roland Rosenberg Rothstein LLP who does a lot of work for police unions but is not involved in these RCMP cases. It is possible, she says, “police services and police associations all over Ontario are accommodating disabled workers throughout their workplaces as we speak.”
Where accommodating an employee with disabilities causes “undue hardship,” an organization can, under the Canadian Human Rights Act, legally forgo doing so. But getting such a pass is not easy.
“That is a very high bar,” Jones says. “It requires employers, individual employees, and police associations to work collaboratively and cooperatively to find appropriate work assignments that are meaningful and advance the interests of everybody in the workplace.”
WATCH: Here’s how Canadian employers must accommodate people with disabilities
It’s one thing for a small bakery to claim undue hardship, says Mark Wright, a labour lawyer at Goldblatt Partners LLP. who is not involved in these RCMP cases. If you have a dozen or so employees it’s not always financially feasible to go to great lengths to accommodate someone, he says.
It’s another thing for a nationwide police service. The RCMP has over 30,000 members, including over 18,000 sworn police officers, and more than a dozen divisions whose duties include frontline policing, terrorism investigations and even the prime minister’s security.
“There’s no conceivable situation in which the viability of the RCMP would thereby be challenged,” Wright says.
The RCMP did not respond to a request for comment.
The threat of discharge
The biggest barrier to challenging the RCMP is the cost, says Ryan Letnes. He’s been a Mountie since 2000. He was a frontline police officer in Saskatchewan and Alberta until 2014, when the force told him a vision test done more than a year prior revealed “poor uncorrected vision.”
The problems were largely in his corneas. In addition to tear duct deficiencies, Letnes has neurotrophic keratitis, a degenerative disease that impacts the corneas. As such, the RCMP restricted his operational duties and moved him into an administrative role, where he did “undefined” administrative duties for a year until the force transferred him to Surrey, B.C.
That’s where Letnes says he recognized the “almost systematic way” the force was dealing with medical cases. He says he was punted into a unit with other members on restricted duties who were assigned “menial tasks” and didn’t seem to have a purpose. A spokesperson for the RCMP says it “cannot comment on individual cases or circumstances.”
“I firmly believe that the purpose of the unit was to dispirit members that suffered from medical ailments, to dispirit them to the point where their only refuge from doing the meaningless work was to leave the organization.”
Letnes says he wasn’t looked at for a medical discharge until after he filed a human rights complaint alleging discrimination on the basis of his disability. The case is ongoing. He says all three of the accommodation positions he was offered a year ago required staring at a computer all day, something his eye issues make medically unfeasible. Still, he says, he took one of the jobs “under duress due to threat of discharge.”
In January the force broached the issue of discharge again, he says, advising him of the medical benefits he would be entitled to if he agreed to a consensual discharge. Concerned, Letnes took action, calling the RCMP’s discharge attempts as a “collateral attack” in an injunction he filed in February.
The case is ongoing and while an RCMP spokesperson says the force can’t comment on specifics, in a letter the force claims it shouldn’t be a defendant to Letnes’ claim, only the Attorney General.
Letnes believes his is the first such attempt to use an injunction to block a discharge. What other option did he have besides the External Review Committee?
“The Mounties’ process is ‘no process,'” says lawyer Sebastien Anderson.
“They’ve invented it that way so that members are denied access to justice and can be forced into a medical discharge.”
An RCMP spokesperson says “dismissal is a last resort.”
When Mounties try go back to work
The reality of the disability accommodation process is that it is “well established to be one of trial and error,” says lawyer Nini Jones, a process that “involves cooperation and collaboration and there is dignity in accommodating members of police services who have disabilities in the workplace.”
The RCMP says it is “committed to accommodating the work related needs of its employees” and respecting its obligations under the Canadian Human Rights Act, according to a spokesperson.
That accommodation is clearly lacking, says Anderson, who filed the first application for judicial review of a discharge decision in recent months on behalf of Kevin Picard, a Mountie whose administrative battles with the force date back a decade.
WATCH: One Mountie explains why officers are hamstrung in preventing a medical discharge
Picard, a staff sergeant with 28 years in the RCMP, was away from his position as commander of the Sunshine Coast detachment on medical leave in 2009 when he says the force cut off his cell phone and suspended his access to the RCMP’s computer system. To date, he alleges he’s had “no meaningful explanation as to why.” A spokesperson for the RCMP says, it “cannot comment on individual cases or circumstances.”
The confusing actions against him escalated, according to court documents, and in 2011, his command was given to someone else, preventing his return to work. Between 2011 and Picard’s discharge last year, he says his time away from work that wasn’t strictly tied to four separate surgeries and subsequent recovery was a result of the RCMP’s failures when it came to his graduated return to work programs. A spokesperson for the RCMP says it “cannot comment on individual cases or circumstances.”
During one phone call in 2013, according to the court documents, Picard learned that like Williams he had been designated “Permanent 06” — the code for totally disabled. A spokesperson for the RCMP says, it “cannot comment on individual cases or circumstances.”
Picard grieved the “arbitrary” classification and in 2016, a force adjudicator sided with him, according to the court documents. That didn’t seem to matter. In 2017, Picard was told the force was pursuing a medical discharge.
“The RCMP relied on that improper determination that he was totally disabled,” Anderson says. In September 2018, Picard was discharged. His court challenge is ongoing.
That Picard’s case echoes William’s case, which in turn echoes others, is why Anderson doesn’t shy away from calling this an RCMP “conspiracy.”
“We have represented clients all across Canada,” he says.
“We know that this is a national campaign, that the hallmarks are the same in every case in terms of the process that they’re using. And the end result is the same: people being forced into this medical discharge.”
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‘It’s a hardship to staff [you] anywhere’
If there is any dignity, trial and error, and cooperation in the RCMP’s disability accommodation process, Mountie Ritchie Sue didn’t get it, lawyer Erin Brandt says. She says her client’s case is an example of the RCMP’s “bureaucratic nightmare.”
Sue joined the force in B.C. in 2000 and worked most recently out of its Surrey detachment. He did many jobs, from undercover work to internal affairs, and he suffered a number of injuries as a result. He broke an ankle during a training course where he says the RCMP didn’t fix a hazard and he was injured in a police accident where he say the force didn’t fix a broken seatbelt. A spokesperson for the RCMP says it “cannot comment on individual cases or circumstances.”
In an interview with Global News, Sue talked about how he lived with near-constant stress as a result of shooting incidents, one where he handled multiple shooters alone, and another where someone stole a van and tried to run over him and he had to shoot to deter them.
“Since we were hired, we’re always told that if you get injured at work, they would take care of you,” Sue says.
“I thought I would be taken care of.”
He wasn’t, says Brandt, who represents Sue.
“They shuffled him into this bureaucratic nightmare which ended up pushing him out the door on the basis that he is too injured to serve, which all of the medical evidence from all of his treating physicians suggests otherwise,” she says.
After his third extended medical leave for two surgeries, Sue says the sustained harassment to get him to accept a consensual medical discharge became so bad that his doctor told him to stop speaking with the RCMP and that he would serve as an intermediary. A spokesperson for the RCMP says it “cannot comment on individual cases or circumstances.”
The facilitator lied about the RCMP’s duty to accommodate, Sue says, telling him they had too many people already in desk jobs in the Surrey area and that it “was a hardship to staff me anywhere.”
WATCH: ‘Basically fired’ – listen to the RCMP explain disability accommodation process to a Mountie
Already restricted as a result of his limited ability to walk without an aid and his ability to use stairs, Sue was further restricted following an RCMP doctor’s independent medical examination in 2015.
That doctor restricted him from any role that included risky decision-making on the basis that Sue was an alcoholic (Sue, his lawyer, and documents from his non-RCMP care providers say unequivocally that he is not). A spokesperson for the RCMP says it “cannot comment on individual cases or circumstances.”
According to Sue in his interview with Global News, the force doctor made that call because Sue says he failed a “road-type sobriety test,” meaning he couldn’t walk without his aid without wobbling. To this, Sue says his offers of doing breathalysers and even wearing an ankle monitor that would monitor for substances were rebuffed. A spokesperson for the RCMP says it “cannot comment on individual cases or circumstances.”
That evaluation bumped Sue to a Permanent 06 category and in 2017 he received his notice of intent to discharge. Without hiring Brandt, Sue says he would have been without effective representation since the RCMP union has yet to certify a bargaining unit.
In light of this, the National Police Federation wrote to Commissioner Lucki last December, asking her to temporarily halt administrative discharges. They wanted a reprieve until a union bargaining agent was certified or until the force agreed to ensure each member facing such a discharge had the right legal representation.
Lucki declined, according to the federation.
“The administrative discharge process is designed to protect members’ procedural rights,” the federation quoted her as saying in a letter to its members summarizing the exchange — those “facing administrative discharge are not without assistance.”
Sue was ultimately discharged in 2018, despite the fact he says the department he was working in at the time rejected the alcoholism diagnosis and tried to keep him on.
It came down to allocation of resources, Brandt says. Effectively the force had a job he was qualified for and could accommodate him in but they didn’t have a desk he could physically access. Then, there was another job that might work, “but there is no budget for that specific role even though there’s work to be done.”
Sue’s treatment was not the case-by-case basis the disability accommodation process demands, Brandt says.
“Because the RCMP has created this blanket approach to how they treat injured members, Ritchie has been treated as a category as opposed to an individual.”
Sue has filed a complaint to the Canadian Human Rights Commission, but Brandt says its still at a “preliminary” stage and they’ve yet to receive an official response from the RCMP. A spokesperson for the force says it “cannot comment on individual cases or circumstances.”
WATCH: Are the Mounties equipped to support members with disabilities?
Nothing shy of a culture change will work, says Ryan Letnes. This is about power. That’s why he’s dubious the forthcoming civilian advisory board will accomplish much. Scott Bardsley, spokesperson for Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale, says the creation of the advisory board will be “a fundamental transformation in how Canada’s national police force has operated for a century and a half.” Members of the board are expected to be announced later in the spring.
“They have no power influence over the RCMP therefore nothing changes,” Letnes says. “It isn’t until these extraordinary levers of power that RCMP management currently enjoy are taken away from them that you will ever see change.”
He urges Canadians to care:
“We are the preeminent law enforcement agency in the country. If our managers are going to treat their subordinates with what amounts to such lawlessness … do people honestly believe that that type of mentality, of behaviour, ends with the treatment of their members?”
Correction: an earlier version of this story stated Chris Williams did a second stint at an in-patient PTSD treatment facility. He only did one. Global News regrets the error.