Police officers stationed at the Ottawa airport are feeling left out in the cold after bringing what they view as serious concerns to their leadership and their union.
The constables say they were punished by the force when they attempted to file a grievance claiming bullying by Staff Sgt. Rene Spirito, who was in charge of the group from 2012 to 2015. They also report to CBC News Ottawa they were abandoned by the Ottawa Police Association.
Ten members from the airport detail, along with former officers, report to CBC News Spirito’s leadership style as “tyrannical” and allege he created a “toxic and unsafe” work environment. They describe Spirito’s volatile temper, his habit of openly favoring some officers while publicly demeaning others and one incident in which he allegedly unholstered his firearm in the office.
When the constables tried to report instances of bullying and secular treatment by Spirito, they were treated like outcasts.
“I did nothing wrong,” said Const. Matt Clarke, a 20-year veteran of the Ottawa Police Service. “My rights weren’t protected at the time.”
The Police Services Act states that officers may only draw their weapons if it’s necessary to “protect against loss of life or serious bodily harm.” Retired constable Gord Shultz reported the incident to his superiors, including the police chief.
It’s alleged that Spirito started waving his gun around just weeks after being assigned to a leadership position at the airport. Officers say Spirito removed his loaded gun from his holster and waved it around while recounting a story about his days on patrol. There’s no indication he pointed the weapon at any of his colleagues.
The Ottawa Police Association said the matter was fully investigated and no charge was ever laid in relation to the incident, but union president Matt Skof wouldn’t say whether Spirito was reprimanded in some other way.
Whether or not charges were made or reprimands given, officers feel Spirito’s behavior is unacceptable.
“Accidental discharges can happen, I’ve seen it before,” said Shultz. “You’re pulling out your gun for no reason. A staff sergeant should be better than that.”
Officers continued working hard to make their grievances known. For two years they worked with the chain of command, but there was no progress. In 2015, 10 of the officers attempted to file an official grievance through their union, complaining of workplace bullying under the Occupational Health and Safety Act.
Meetings and discussions often became heated and emotional and mostly ended with zero consensus.
Clarke, Const. Kelly Ryan and Sgt. Alex Bender, who had originally brought his platoon’s complaints about Spirito to the attention of Chief Charles Bordeleau, were informed they were being transferred to different units.
CBC writes in its story that they’ve reached out to Spirito, but he refused to comment and asked the news outlet not to contact him again.
In a written report to his boss, Spirito wrote that he wanted to pump new blood into the unit, and that his goal was to change the culture and perception of airport police.
Spirito referred to the unit as “the island of misfit toys,” an assignment that was “viewed as a retirement home for officers in their last years or a place to send problem employees.”
Officers on his detail do not share his view, and are not happy with his management style.
“I didn’t sign up to be controlled and harassed and manipulated by management,” I was a productive officer,” said Ryan, who is currently on stress leave. “Why would you do that to your own officer?”
Feeling hung out to dry; officers felt there was no other choice than to pay for their own representation.
Clarke, Ryan and three other officers paid $10,000 of their own money to consult labor lawyer David Jewitt, who found that the transfer of the officers would have a “chilling effect across the bargaining unit with the respect to the filing of any future complaints of harassment.”
Jewitt concluded in his legal view, the decision to move the officers out of the airport unit did indeed amount to punishment for speaking out.
In the fall of 2015 — just a few months after the officers were turfed from the airport unit — Spirito was also reassigned and is now working as a staffing officer in patrol.
CBC reports they’ve contacted the inspector who informed the officers of their transfer, but was told the force will not comment on ongoing labor matters.