Victoria’s police chief has received another blow — the Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner (OPCC) has ordered two public trust investigations into his conduct and one of them involves allegations of workplace harassment.
It all began last August when the Victoria and Esquimalt Police Board launched an internal investigation after a concern was brought to their attention regarding private messages that were exchanged on Twitter between Chief Frank Elsner and the wife (a female officer from Saanich) of an officer under his command.
An independent lawyer investigated the matter and concluded there was no inappropriate relationship, but there was inappropriate use of direct messaging and social media. What those messages said has not been revealed.
On Dec. 4, the police board voted to keep Elsner on as chief, but imposed undisclosed discipline.
A few days later, the police union said it has no confidence in the way the board and its chairs handled the incident. The union also has no confidence in Elsner’s ability to continue to lead.
As a result, a report on the investigation was sent to the OPCC — a civilian watchdog that oversees police conduct — to determine whether it was necessary to order a public trust investigation into the matter.
Now the review is complete and police complaint commissioner Stan Lowe is calling for an external investigation into five allegations of disciplinary breaches of trust.
In a lengthy report on his decision released Friday, Lowe touched on a number of issues he had with the internal investigation and revealed more allegations surrounding Elsner while it was taking place.
According to the report, Elsner is alleged to have had conversations with two witnesses related to the ongoing investigation, even though he was under direction not to speak with witnesses related to the matter.
There is also an allegation that Elsner met with a member under his command and provided him with inaccurate and misleading information, in circumstances the chief knew would influence the member in the decision they had to make as to whether he wished to initiate a complaint or request a public trust investigation.
“The false information provided by the chief was consistent with an attempt to mislead the member as to the nature of the chief’s conduct involving the member’s spouse,” wrote Lowe in his decision. “This conduct, if substantiated, would constitute the disciplinary breach of trust of discreditable conduct.”
The report also criticizes the way police board co-chairs Lisa Helps and Barb Desjardins handled the internal investigation, noting they did not adequately update board members along its course, tell the commissioner’s office when new allegations arose and misinformed the media about the existence of an investigation.
Lowe said the internal process and procedures in the matter did not meet the level of procedural fairness, accountability and transparency contemplated by the Police Act. Instead of all interviews being audio recorded, they were documented by handwritten notes made by the interviewer, he noted, and there was no opportunity provided for witnesses to review the summaries.
“Based on the information that I have received, I am of the view that some individuals who have a direct interest in this matter were not accorded sufficient informational rights, were not provided a sufficient right to be heard, and did not receive a decision which clearly identified the basis upon which the co-chairs decided the matter,” wrote Lowe in the decision.
Lowe has now appointed retired judge Carol Baird Ellan as the discipline authority on the matter. Chief Superintendent Sean Bourrie of the RCMP has been assigned as the chief investigator and will have a team of senior officers with the Vancouver Police Department. The investigation must be completed within six months.
In the second investigation, which is unrelated to the first one, the OPCC said on Dec. 11 it received information from a representative of the Victoria Police Union in relation to allegations made by four employees of workplace harassment by Elsner. The allegations relate to alleged conduct that has been occurring on an ongoing basis since early 2014.
Lowe said the climate within the department appears to be “in a state of tension and dissonance” and wants investigations into three allegations of disciplinary breaches of trust investigated. No further information has been released.
Elsner has since offered an apology, saying he was completely humiliated by the whole situation. He also stated he did not initiate the messages and stopped it “before it became more ridiculous than it was.” Elsner’s usually active Twitter feed has been quiet since Dec. 6.
Leading up to the OPCC decision, acting president of the Victoria Police Union Glen Shiels said much of the conversation amongst officers has been centred around Christmas gifts and plans for the holiday season. But what will happen with Elsner’s position as top cop is still a topic of discussion that isn’t going away any time soon.
“People are just waiting to see what happens next,” said Shiels, adding moral is still “pretty good.”
Knowing the details of the messages would be interesting, he added, “but kind of irrelevant.”
“For me, I am comfortable knowing that a full investigation was done and I’ll rely on the police complaint commissioner to make sure that it’s dealt with appropriately. We are trying to be as respectful as we can to the people involved.”