Ex-cops dig into corporate Canada’s sexual crimes and misdemeanours

Talk to many a cop, and they will tell you that sex crimes are the worst. I know of one veteran reporter who sat in with Calgary officers who examine a relentless tide of child pornography—he lasted a day. And it’s not overreaching, it’s not film noir hype, to report that Suzanne Kernohan and Deborah Vittie-Pagliaro— both of whom worked about 30 years on the Toronto police force before they retired and went into business together—have checked out some of the sewer-dark blackness of the human condition.

Vittie-Pagliaro, for example, was on the Holly Jones murder task force—the case back in 2003 when a 10-year-old girl went missing in Toronto, parts of her body later found in bags. The case haunted the city, with west end residents doing their own amateur patrolling while attempts were made to snatch other children that summer. Kernohan was a sergeant at the force’s 11 Division, which covered the neighbourhood where Holly lived. Eventually, her killer was caught, the inevitable being asked: why? Why do such a horrible thing? He claimed he got himself worked up from watching child porn.

“And those are the things that don’t leave you,” says Kernohan, who calls it “heartbreaking” to deal with the family.

“Cops are generally fixers,” adds Vittie-Pagliaro. “There’s no fixing this. It devastated the family, the community, everything. There’s just no making sense of it.”

The years will crawl by, however, for the killer as he spends a 25-year sentence behind stone walls with no chance of parole.

With such ugliness, it makes you wonder why Vittie-Pagliaro and Kernohan would want to leave official police investigations to go digging into the sexual crimes and misdemeanors of the corporate world. But this is what they do now, having formed ICE Professional Services (ICE is an acronym for Investigative and Corporate Evaluation).

“I think for myself,” says Kernohan, “I did not want to go and work in the sex crimes unit, and it turned out I ended up being there for a third of my career, and I’ve become most passionate about it… about finding the truth. I’m passionate about doing everything that I can do to hold people accountable and responsible.” After a three-decade career, she says, “you don’t just walk away from the Toronto Police Service.”

The phrasing is interesting; they talk as if they never really left. And in truth, it’s only been about two years out for Kernohan, three for Vittie-Pagliaro. While they may not have the entire law enforcement infrastructure backing them up anymore, they still have their interviewing skills, their instincts, plus other resources. “We’re extremely connected. There is life after policing. You wouldn’t believe the number of our colleagues that are in business now.”

Bryce Evans, a superintendent of specialized criminal investigations on the force, says that Kernohan and Vittie-Pagliaro “get business done”—and you get the sense that’s one of the highest compliments he’ll give out in a very demanding line of work. He says private businesses might hire other companies that lack investigative knowledge. “It’s nice to have the theories… but when you need the person to get in there and to do the proper analysis through investigations and also through experience, you get a far better product.”

The World of Human Failing

“You don’t survive in the rough and tumble world of policing and… criminal law unless you’ve got a heart of steel,” says David Butt, who knows these women well. Butt spent 13 years as a prosecutor, doing a lot of work to crack down on child sexual exploitation. “They’re very tough, hard-nosed investigators, but what’s interesting is that they also obviously bring a sensitivity to victims issues. They bring the compassionate side of good investigative protocol and good investigative techniques. So they’ve got, I think, both the hard and the soft skill sets in a nice combination.”

Butt likely has seen both skill sets in action. After all, Vittie-Pagliaro did a stint in the force’s Professional Standards Unit—what the cop shows on prime time call “internal affairs”—where she investigated complaints of police misconduct. That meant that Butt “saw Deb across the table” when he was representing accused officers. These days, however, all are on the same side, with the women and Butt keeping in touch, and the lawyer occasionally offering expert advice.

Butt’s world, he says, is the “world of human failing”—failings that are more dramatic when they become criminal. He points out that “even if you’re not dealing with criminal allegations, what you are dealing with in harassment contexts is violation of personal space. And whether it’s criminal or not is simply a matter of degree.”

It’s hard to believe that certain folks just ain’t getting the memo. Or they’re ignoring it altogether. Kernohan and Vittie-Pagliaro started their business back in January, and there’s obviously enough trouble out there to keep them in business. “We’re seeing everything, from a range of inappropriate behaviour, inappropriate comments to sexual assault,” says Kernohan. While many corporate employees routinely get human resources training and information on sexual harassment, she argues, there’s been “a resurgence” in bad and downright criminal conduct.

With the Jian Ghomeshi-CBC case, the issue is back in the news, but “people are realizing that, ‘Oh, maybe we don’t get it.’ And Deb and I can both tell you from our years of working in the sex crimes unit and dealing with different individuals, including corporations and organizations and the media, people don’t get it… Not everyone, but a lot of people don’t get it.”

Having the Ghomeshi case in mind, Bryce Evans argues that “you’re having cases where if the private industry or the corporations had proper protocols in place or reporting mechanisms… it could have been dealt with in a professional manner, and appropriate action taken within the industry.”

But people naturally think about the repercussions to themselves before speaking out.

In the grim old days, going back to at least the 1980s, a victim of sexual harassment didn’t ever stand a chance. There does seem to have been a culture shift, but not always for the better. In some places, for instance, the grim old days never ended, as investigations into the Canadian military and the RCMP show. In the private sector, maybe corporations don’t suffer so much from blaming a victim as just wishing a problem would go away.

“I’d like to say that’s changing,” counters Kernohan. “That’s what we’re finding—it’s changing. The organizations are starting to wake up a little bit and realize that it’s not just [one offending] individual anymore.”

She cites Hydro One as a great example, one that made international news. Back in May, if you recall, a CityTV reporter had to put up with juvenile vulgarities interrupting her stand-up report at a Toronto soccer match; when she confronted one of the gang, he had more coarse comments for her. It turned out he was an engineer for Hydro One—which promptly fired him. The culture shift is one that Vittie-Pagliaro likens to the change over domestic violence (and for those who don’t remember, this is how badly that issue used to be handled: when Margaret Mitchell stood up in the House of Commons in 1982 to report statistics on battered women, male MPs on both sides of the House laughed). She suggests that now “it’s a more open environment, if you will, to receiving complaints.”

And Kernohan notes that Bill 168, which amended the Occupational Health and Safety Act five years ago over violence and harassment, “places obligations on the employers to provide a safe workplace, to provide a happy environment free from harassment. But it goes one step further that they have an obligation to protect. And when they find out, they must investigate and do something.”

True to the Victim

Corporations, she says, can’t flippantly hand out information, but have to clearly communicate to employees what the expectations are in terms of behaviour. Some firms have reached out to them, wanting to know how to express language in policies and how best to talk to their workers. “And people are covering themselves. It’s all about risk management.”

If the corporation is the client, it’s reasonable to ask then where their loyalties lie. After all, the company wants to cover its large behind in terms of liability. But former police colleague Bryce Evans cites the “customer service approach” the ICE partners use in dealing with the victim. He’s personally seen them “take people where they’re completely against reporting… where they’ve gained their vote of confidence, and they work collectively together, and they build that trust. And that’s what we need in these industries, we need that trust built up, because they see a [company] individual coming in and saying, ‘Tell me all about it,’ and well, they say, ‘You’re part of the management team’ or ‘You’re a part of this.’”

“Deb and I from the very beginning have said we will always be true to the victim,” insists Kernohan. “And the corporation at the end of the day is going to do what they want to do. We are going to give them the best consulting advice that we can. If you take care of that person who’s reporting, you’re going to take care of your company.” She and Vittie-Pagliaro consider themselves neutral and independent.

“We can find that balance in protecting the person who’s reporting [that] we’re going to work by the law,” argues Vittie-Pagliaro. “We’re going to follow Bill 168… But that protects the organization as well. They’re already bound by law to do that. And if they want to keep it quiet, sorry, I’m just going to talk to that. That’s very common. But you also need to go to the person who’s reporting, and find out: what do they want? That’s most important, and most times they want it kept quiet. They’re not trying to create attention for themselves. In most cases it’s simple. They just want to go back and do their job. They want the inappropriate behaviour to stop.”

She says most organizations recognize that if things are at the point where their firm is needed, there’s the distinct possibility the corporation could get sued. “We can assist with mitigating the damages in that regard and building that rapport and that relationship with that reportee, finding out what that reportee would like to do to resolve the matter, if there is in fact anything the person can do… Some people, some organizations won’t even go to that individual to talk to that person because they’re afraid. ‘Oh, don’t talk to her, there’s an ongoing investigation, it’s hush-hush, it’s quiet.’ And that is really the wrong thing to do. You’re isolating that reportee and making them feel even more uncomfortable.”

Instead, it’s very important to have a point person keep in contact with the individual to follow up. A person filing a complaint is kept in the loop, they’re aware that the issue is being taken seriously, which can be empowering. As for the corporations, there are lessons for them, with plenty of case study examples to choose from; Hydro One and the CBC debacle with Jian Ghomeshi easily come to mind. Kernohan says job one is to listen. In the more notorious examples, it’s clear certain managers didn’t.

“They heard the whispers, they heard the rumours, they made decisions that they weren’t in a position to make,” says Kernohan. “Like one, ‘It’s not my position to investigate that. So I’m going to leave that alone.’ Or two, ‘I’m not getting involved, I’m not going to ruffle any feathers.’ You do, when you’re in management especially, you do have to listen to those rumours and the gossip—they could be false… You don’t need to bring a big team in to do an investigation when you hear the rumours and the rumblings. You get a little bit of that information, find out what you’re dealing with and nip it in the bud.”

Copyright 2015 Rogers Publishing Ltd. This article first appeared in the Winter 2015 edition of Corporate Risk Canada magazine

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