Repeated sexual advances from colleagues and superiors, prompting her to wear a fake engagement ring. Frequent remarks from fellow officers about the bodies of female cops and sexual assault victims. Pornographic images posted in common areas in the police station, sometimes with racist comments scrawled overtop.
During her nearly decade-long stint as a Toronto police officer, Const. Firouzeh “Effy” Zarabi-Majd alleges she has endured “demeaning, sexist, racist and Islamophobic comments” and regular sexual harassment — discrimination that’s enabled by a “culture in which misogyny and racism are normalized,” she claims.
Zarabi-Majd’s allegations are detailed in a claim filed with Ontario’s Human Rights Tribunal last week, in which the 37-year-old Iranian-Canadian alleges workplace discrimination based on gender, race, ethnic origin and more during her time at 51 Division, a busy downtown detachment.
In one instance, she alleges she was sexually assaulted by a male superior she trusted. Repeatedly, she says she was denied opportunities to advance due to discriminatory promotions favouring white, male officers. All the while, she’s felt she’s had nowhere to turn for help.
Her claim is the second in less than a year in which a female Toronto police officer alleges her workplace is “poisonous” for women, where complaining risks professional consequences including threats to on-the-job safety. Another sexual harassment complaint by Const. Heather McWilliam, filed in 2014, is currently before the human rights tribunal.
“What I experienced at 51 Division is a reflection of a deep, systemic culture of racism and sexism,” writes Zarabi-Majd. “My story is only one among many stories of women officers” in the Toronto Police Service.
None of the allegations has been tested at the human rights tribunal.
Toronto police spokesperson Mark Pugash said he could not comment on the any of the allegations contained in the complaint, citing the ongoing human rights tribunal process. The service has not yet received the claim.
Zarabi-Majd’s claim comes on the heels of an internal review of Toronto police sexual harassment policies commissioned by the police board earlier this year, after Toronto police Sgt. Jessica McInnis filed a human rights claim alleging repeated sexual harassment on the job and ineffective accountability mechanisms.
The review concluded the service was in compliance with industry best practices and legislation. According to the June report by Chief Mark Saunders, that includes procedures communicated to all members about workplace harassment and “clear expectations about freedom from reprisal for members who report harassment.”
There was also recent presentation to senior officers on zero tolerance of workplace harassment, Saunders’ report said.
Zarabi-Majd claims there is “nowhere to turn” within the service for officers feeling harassed or discriminated against, a result of “a matrix of policies which are either unenforced, inaccessible, or otherwise ineffective,” reads the claim.
In her case, she worried she’d be labelled a troublemaker if she complained and when she did, her concerns were “laughed off.” She alleges a steward of the Toronto Police Association (TPA) once told her to consider the potential ramifications of formally complaining about sexist comments from male colleagues, saying they were “kids” who may not know their remarks were offensive.
Mike McCormack, president of the TPA, which is named as a respondent in the claim, said the union had not yet been served with the claim. He said it would not be appropriate comment on a case before the tribunal.
A spokesperson for the Toronto police board, which is also named as a respondent, also said they have not yet been served and declined to comment on a case before the tribunal.
Female Toronto police officers who allege sexual mistreatment are “caught between a rock and a hard place,” said Barry Swadron, who is representing Zarabi-Majd alongside Marshall Swadron and Lisa Leinveer.
“Depending on the circumstances, there can be myriad reasons why a female officer may want to or should come forward with her complaint. All the while, there may be compelling reasons why she is hesitant to or fears coming forward.”
Zarabi-Majd’s claim spans her Toronto policing career, starting when she was hired in 2009 until June 2018, when she went on leave “as a result of the impact of the ongoing discrimination on my mental health.” She has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety and depression, according to the claim.
During her time at 51 Division, Zarabi-Majd says she heard a “regular barrage of sexist and racist comments.” She alleges she has been subjected to “aggressive sexual advances” by colleagues and superiors, some of whom inquired about her sex life and personal grooming. In 2014, she began wearing a fake engagement ring to discourage sexual harassment, the claim states.
She alleges she regularly witnessed male colleagues discuss female officers and other women in a sexual way, including: discussions about the breast size of female colleagues and new officers coming to the division; openly gossiping about the appearance of sexual assault or harassment victims; and negative judgments made about the supposed actions of a sexual assault complainant, including drinking alcohol.
The claim also alleges “pornographic” photos of women were regularly torn out of magazines kept in the booking hall, then taped to the walls. Misogynistic comments were sometimes written on top, and when the woman was racialized they were often racist, the claim states.
“I was disgusted by the photographs that were taped up and often surreptitiously removed them, which annoyed some of the male officers,” Zarabi-Majd’s claim says.
In one recent alleged incident, she says she was asked if she was a “Musi” by a superior, referring to her Muslim faith, which then prompted others to call her this behind her back and to her face, the claim states.
As one of the few female officers at the division, however, Zarabi-Majd says she felt it was best to “stay quiet and pretend I was not affected by the comments.” She worried that if she spoke up she could be ostracized “or worse — I could become the subject of intense scrutiny for the purpose of discrediting me.”
The claim also details specific encounters with officers that Zarabi-Majd said left her feeling demeaned and unsafe.
In a 2014 incident, Zarabi-Majd was socializing in a residence with two of her male colleagues when one of them suddenly asked to have sex with her. When she refused and got up to leave, he blocked her path to the door and said: “If you don’t f— us both tonight, I will tell everyone that you f—ed us both,” according to the claim. The other officer then allegedly said, “OK, just show us your tits then.”
In 2015, Zarabi-Majd claims she was “sexually assaulted” by a male superior whom she respected and considered a friend. She alleges he was over at her home for coffee when he suddenly forced his lips on hers and grabbed her back, pressing his tongue into her mouth. When she pulled away, he asked her to have sex with her, a request he repeated in phone calls to her in the following weeks.
“I thought about this incident every day for a long time and I kept asking myself whether any of it was my fault. I became distant from most of my male colleagues because it was becoming increasingly difficult to trust anyone,” Zarabi-Majd writes in the claim.
Earlier this year, a male superior was complaining about facing professional repercussions for being present at a now-infamous work party in 2015 when it was alleged three 51 Division officers sexually assaulted a parking enforcement colleague (the officers were acquitted last year).
Speaking to a group of officers at the division, he allegedly said: “Next time you guys have a shift party then go to the strip club and (Zarabi-Majd) wants to go back to the hotel with you, I can’t be involved.”
“I was embarrassed and infuriated by this comment,” Zarabi-Majd writes.
Finally, in June, she was advised that five male colleagues had discussed her personal grooming in a private group on social messaging app WhatsApp, one officer allegedly asking: “Is (Zarabi-Majd)’s bush all brillowy like a (Black) chick?”
Zarabi-Majd said she worried that if she came forward about any of the alleged incidents, it would negatively impact her reputation and risk her safety. For instance, she worried that any radio requests she made for backup would not be answered or “would be met with a purposefully slow response,” she writes in the claim, saying she’s witnessed such behaviour when fellow officers don’t like another cop.
She also said she has seen negative repercussions for female officers who have brought forward complaints of sexual harassment to the service’s professional standards unit, which conducts internal investigations. They were “treated with disdain and their allegations did not lead to meaningful consequences for their perpetrators,” the claim says.
“I have witnessed many women police officers who experience sexual harassment in the workplace and seek transfers to different divisions or remain silent because of fear of reprisal,” she says.
Zarabi-Majd also alleges she and other female and racialized officers are the victims of biased promotional practices, because they are given disproportionately fewer opportunities for the professional development necessary to gain new skills and advance in the organization, the claim states.
“Decisions respecting the allocation of courses, committee assignments and placements are at the discretion of an officer’s supervisors. This wide discretion allows for supervisors to assign courses, committees and placements in discriminatory ways,” the claim states.
Zarabi-Majd lists requested remedies, including human rights training for management at 51 Division with special emphasis on sexual harassment; that the police service properly fund and staff its Diversity and Inclusion Office; and that the police association establish a position, staffed by a woman, to whom TPA members can report sexual assault and harassment.
She is also seeking $575,000 in damages and reimbursements for lost income and expenses.
Originally posted on thestar.com by Wendy Gillis on September 26, 2018