Brantford, Ontario’s claim to fame is being the birthplace of Wayne Gretzky, widely considered to be hockey’s greatest player. But now, the Canadian city can claim another hero: Kelly Donovan, a former police officer who reported corruption within the ranks of municipal and provincial police.
Donovan’s parents were blue collar, and divorced when she was five years old, and Donovan remembers conflict in the home. Her father was very traditional, and taught his daughter homebuilding skills. He did, however, embrace “fighting for something you believed in.” Donovan’s mother was a very strong woman, and she taught Donovan to stand up for herself. Donovan also had a strong grandmother. Donovan described herself as “mouthy” growing up, but declared that was just a label given to girls who spoke up.
In 2001 Donovan graduated from the University of Western Ontario (UWO) with a B.S. in Statistics. During her time at UWO, she was active in Varsity Rugby and found academic life to be easy for her. After graduation, she moved to Toronto and lived a carefree life; working, playing Provincial Rugby, and socializing.
In 2003 Donovan’s life was turned upside down when her mother was diagnosed with cancer. It was, Donovan notes, “a pivotal point” in her life. She soon moved home to Brantford to take care of her. After her mother died in 2004, Donovan got into a relationship with a man whom she had grown close to during her mother’s illness. Her common-law husband became a police officer and Donovan had three children.
The marriage became abusive, and Donovan reported her husband to her husband’s police department twice for domestic abuse. His fellow officers discouraged Donovan from reporting him, even after physical assaults. Donovan divorced her husband, and became a single mother of three children under the age of 5. Donovan’s negative experience with the police over her domestic abuse situation propelled her into entering law enforcement. Donovan felt that if people “like her” got into law enforcement, the system would change for the better.
Donovan was hired by the Waterloo Regional Police Service (WRPS) in December of 2010 and entered the Police Academy in January, 2011. While attending a three-month police training, another recruit shot himself on the firing range. He was in the lane next to Donovan and was close enough that Donovan thought she had been shot. This was a contributing experience to the PTSD that Donovan developed from her service.
Donovan worked as a Police Constable at WRPS for six years and seven months, 2010 until 2017. Her responsibilities ranged from Police Constable to Training Officer. Her duties were as a C.O.P.S. Mentor, Divisional Fraud Officer, Firearms Trainer, Defensive Tactics Instructor, and Use of Force Analyst. Donovan was a smart, hard-charging police officer, involved in her community and well-liked by most people in and outside the police department. She also participated at bodybuilding competitions, promoting a natural, drug-free active lifestyle through fitness.
Shortly after becoming an officer, Donovan started noticing problematic leadership, abuses of power, malfeasance, harassment of women, and other distressing concerns at WRPS. “The Waterloo Police Department is a good old boy network. It is a very homogenous community,” Donovan stated. “They all have a stake in protecting the reputation of the profession. They all participate in concealing anything that would damage the reputation of the profession.”
Politicians told Donovan that if information got out regarding corruption or misuse of power by the police, it would be chaos and people would lose trust in policing. Donovan responded that the “continued cover ups and attempts to protect the reputation of the police is what is hurting their reputation.” Donovan noted “There are so many things being disclosed about police corruption through other means, like in social media or court cases, let us deal with the problem so we can protect the reputation.”
Donovan noted, “So much more was going on than people knew. After work I contacted officers and victims, asking them about details of their cases. For example there was a member [of WRPS] who was harassing a young woman, sending repeated text messages, and finally, breaking into her house. Donovan reported the issue to her supervisor, and discovered her department did not want to investigate the officer. “He was one of the popular officers,” Donovan noted. That incident pushed Donovan into taking action, going to the Police Board in 2016. The board is meant to oversee the effective management of the police service, and be the voice of the community. Donovan noted that she took a day off of work and spoke to the board regarding police misconduct at WRPS.
Retaliation from WRPS was swift as Donovan was hit with six counts of misconduct right after speaking to the Police Board. Donovan’s duties were taken away and she was told she could not appear in front of the board again. Donovan contacted the board and informed them of the retaliation. Two weeks later, Donovan was hit again with two more counts of misconduct in retaliation for contacting the board. She was forbidden to contact the Police Board again. For the next fourteen months, Donovan continued her fight against malfeasance and corruption at WRPS, contacting everyone in the hope of finding assistance in her role as a whistleblower.
Donovan was relegated to administrative duties, and in that role, she did the best job possible. Donovan said she “was being recognized as an asset with my administrative work, but was being treated like shit for being a whistleblower.” She started having panic attacks, and found herself ostracized and given the silent treatment at work. Some of Donovan’s superiors told her that she was speaking the truth, but they themselves would never go public. Donovan decided that officers were either participating in the corruption, or they knew about it and were just not saying anything, tolerating it in order to keep the salary and their pension.
A class action lawsuit was filed against WRPS in May of 2017 by a group of women for $167 million CAD. Donovan did not stake a claim in the class action lawsuit, noting that she “had additional issues that I wanted to address in gender discrimination.” Women were still being assaulted, harassed and threatened by police officers. The presiding judge threw the class action suit out, but Donovan still had an active case, and she refused to sign a Non Disclosure Agreement.
Donovan stated that there is case law from 1994 that notes police officers have to go through a labor arbitrator because of a collective agreement clause. A whistleblower is forced to deal with their union, which Donovan claims has abandoned women because the union also represents the majority of men, and the officers who are named in the complaints are also members of the union. Even though the original case in 1994 had nothing to do with police service, all the police departments utilize the case to remove suits from court and remand them back to union arbitration.
In June of 2017, due to stress and PTSD, Donovan left WRPS. Donovan released a 93-page report in July of 2017 which was called “The Systemic Misfeasance in Police Management and the Coordination of Suppressing of Whistleblowers.”
Donovan stated that when she left in June of 2017, her Police Chief was promoted as President of the Ontario Association Chiefs of Police. This is a peer based job, elected by the other regional police chiefs. Donovan discovered that police chiefs were not worried about his abuse of power, or how women are treated in the police service. It appeared to Donovan that “if you are popular enough, you can make it to the highest levels in policing.”
In May of 2018, Donovan filed a lawsuit for breach of contract, adding her Police Chief and his misuse of power. In her lawsuit, Donovan asked for reinstatement, but as time passed, and the more the police service fought her, Donovan realized that the service did not deserve someone like her. Donovan eventually left with a negotiated settlement noting that WRPS would pay for medical claims. They did not follow through with the contract. Donovan stated that WRPS has spent over 400,000 retaliating against her, while Donovan only asked for 200,000. Donovan stated that her Chief of Police “makes more in salary than the Chief of Defense for Canada. Policing is so lucrative, officers are not willing to sacrifice their salary and retirement for ethics or criminality by fellow officers.”
Donovan has appeared in front of the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal, but has found that the police service simply offers money for women to “shut up.” Donovan stated “Employment lawyers are getting rich off of these cases. They are brought in to intimidate and threaten. They ask what it will take for these allegations to go away? What is going to take for you to stop talking about them? I am not going to stop talking about the truth. There is no amount of money…the silence would kill me. I am looking at systematic abuse.”
Donovan stated, “Once I released my report in 2017, I had hundreds of officers and victims that reached out to me. I started testimonials from officers, but I am still alone because officers will not publicly support me. Some officers wanted me to quit or kill myself. There is a high incidence of suicides with police in Canada because of this culture. I could not have kept my mouth shut, it is not in my nature.”
Donovan continued, “Hundreds of officers have reached out, and lots of civilians. There have been officers who are part of the good old boy system and have tried to shame me. If I had stayed, they would have kept me in the basement and I would never have been an officer on the road ever again.”
Donovan talks about what she calls the Oath of Unconsciousness, “When a police officer is in long enough, they no longer think they have an oath as a police officer, but an oath of unconsciousness. I am going to do what you tell me to do, I am going to keep my head down, and make it to retirement.”
When I asked what separates Donovan from all the other officers who cannot or will not speak truth to power, she responds that she has an ability to stand up to bullies. “It is just not in my nature to stand by and watch someone misuse their authority. I hear from people all the time that they have to stay (on the job) because they need the money, but money has never been that important to me. I have never been motivated by money. I knew there was a chance I could lose my livelihood but I decided that if I have to, I will work at McDonalds. Protect your salary at what cost?”
When Donovan noted how corrupt the system was to her superiors, their response was usually that the system has always been corrupt, and who does Donovan think she is that she believes she can change the system? Donovan has stayed in the fight, establishing a company, “Fit4Duty-the Ethical Standard,” which she presently operates. Her company conducts ethical workplace investigations, and provides consulting around workplace conduct management. She has appeared on the speaking circuit, informing the public about ethics, integrity, and whistleblowing. Donovan has written two books, “Systemic Misfeasance in Ontario Policing and the Coordinated Suppression of Whistleblowers” and “Police Line: Do Not Cross, Silencing a Canadian Police Whistleblower.”
Donovan notes that at some point in every police officer’s career, they are going to have to decide between their $100,000 job and pension, or their integrity. Donovan fights a lonely battle, as very few in positions of power or authority are willing to address the corruption and malfeasance within Canadian policing. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (Mounties) have suffered a culture of dysfunction and paid out 220 million over the conduct of its officers. The problems with the Mounties are the same as Donovan’s regional office: fear of repercussions, promotions driven by who you know rather than what you do, and a presumption that officers in senior ranks are skilled and professional.
When, Donovan asks, are the police organizations going to run out of money to pay for their misconduct? Donovan’s battle is David and Goliath, a lonely voice crying out in the wilderness of Canada.
Currently, Donovans’ lawsuit filed in May of 2018 for breach of contract was dismissed in February of 2019, and Donovan appealed. In October of 2019 the case was reinstated and is awaiting trial. Donovan also filed with the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal for retaliation, and WRPS also filed, noting that Donovan had breached her Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA). It was simply an attempt to silence Donovan as she never signed an NDA. It also turned out that the Registrar of the Ontario Tribunal was previously the Head Instructor of the Ontario Police Academy. The Tribunal can dismiss a case at any time, and currently, there has been no action taken. The life of a whistleblower is extremely difficult, and Donovan has had to fight more than her share of corruption, experiencing obstacles every step of the way. Her courage and fearlessness is to be admired, for her path is not marked, and she walks alone, guided only by her moral compass and the light of truth.