An Ottawa police officer alleges his superiors subjected him to a barrage of internal investigations and requirements for performance improvements in a racist campaign to block him from promotion.
“The Ottawa Police Service is a breeding ground for systemic discrimination,” Elie Labaky, a lawyer for Const. Khoa Hoang, told an Ontario Human Rights Tribunal hearing on Tuesday.
But a lawyer for the police service told the hearing that Hoang was under investigation for dodging calls, and fellow officers had raised concerns that he wouldn’t show up on time to back them up in dangerous situations.
Both sides sketched out their claims on the first day of the hearing, which was attended by about a dozen of Hoang’s supporters, many wearing buttons with the words “We believe Khoa.”
Hoang’s lawyer, Elie Labaky, said his client had been accepted for a promotion to sergeant when a “subtle” campaign began that embroiled Hoang in a series of internal probes to harass and bully him.
If police really were concerned with his Hoang’s performance, they could have laid a charge under the Ontario Police Services Act, said Labaky. “He would at least have had a chance to defend himself.”
Labaky said the police service took the performance improvement route because they feared Hoang would go to the Human Rights Commission if he was not promoted.
But Jock Climie, a lawyer for the Ottawa Police Service, denied this claim.
“The chief of police can’t make daily decisions based on the fact that someone might lay a complaint. Nothing would ever get done,” he said.
“This is not a case about racism. There is no discrimination. This is about officer safety and public safety.”
Hoang was born in Vietnam and raised in Ottawa and has been recognized with a number of honours, including the 2012 Top Law Enforcement Officer Award from Crime Prevention Ottawa.
Climie said that being considered for a promotion is at the discretion of the candidate’s staff sergeant. Staff Sgt. Lyse Foruner decided Hoang had immediate permission to enter the promotions process. In November 2014, Hoang ranked 34th in line.
But Hoang’s application also triggered a series of events, said Climie. A sergeant came forward with concerns that Hoang was a risk to the safety of police officers. Fournier had never heard this before, but suddenly she was “flooded” with concerns, said Climie.
Fournier decided to investigate 49 of the calls Hoang had been involved in using dispatch and GPS records and call logs to piece together what had happened. Some concerns were not valid, or had an explanation, said Climie. But Fournier found that in at least 18 of the calls, Hoang didn’t move for at least three minutes after receiving a priority call and sometimes not at all.
“He was always the last on the scene, even when he was the closest,” said Climie.
In one incident involving a violent subject, Hoang was two doors away petting a dog, said Climie. During the Parliament Hill attack on Oct. 22, 2014, Hoang said he would act as a scribe at a command post but never showed up at all.
“This is just a small sampling of the many things that the staff sergeant found,” said Climie.
Hoang’s superiors decided in February 2015 that it was a performance issue and put Hoang on a six-month evaluation to correct his performance so he could once again be in line for the promotion.
The following July concerns started to “bubble up again,” said Climie.
In June 2015, one complainant claimed, Hoang was second at the scene of an assault but didn’t assist until a third officer showed up. He was also last to arrive at another incident, a stabbing, accord to another complainant.
In September 2015, a police inspector made a request for then-chief Charles Bordeleau to consider making a chief’s complaint in the case. If there were grounds for the complaint, Hoang could have been charged under the Police Services Act.
When the matter was bought to Bordeleau’s attention, the chief asked if experts in labour relations were involved. Since they were not, it was decided to deal with the matter as a performance management issue.
Hoang was placed on a “performance improvement process,” and he went on stress leave. In February 2016, he returned to modified duties.
Bordeleau, who retired in May, told the inquiry that the Ottawa Police Service has several avenues for officers to report harassment or discrimination. When the possibility of a chief’s complaint is brought up, the chief needs to be satisfied that there is a potential breach of the Police Services Act, said Bordeleau, who estimated that about 75 potential chief’s complaints would cross his desk in a year, but a charge would be laid in only 10 or 15 per cent of these cases.
Bordeleau said he has never denied that racism continues to exist in the force, and he has heard from racialized officers that they felt they were not treated equitably.
“Clearly, racialized members and women don’t feel that they are treated like white men,” he said. “We have done a lot, but clearly there is a lot more to be done.”
The number of complaints about bullying and harassment have actually increased, but Bordeleau believes this is because officers feel that they can come forward. When he met with Hoang in a restaurant on Bank Street to hear Hoang’s story, Bordeleau said, he was concerned about experiences Hoang related.
“I believe as chief I did everything I could to give Khoa the support he needed,” Bordeleau told the hearing.
However, under questioning from Labaky about Fournier’s actions, Bordeleau said part of the duty of a staff sergeant is to investigate concerns that are brought forward.
“She demonstrated that there was a legitimate performance issue.”
A second date for the hearing has not been set.