Cary Ryan is a survivor of domestic violence. She’s also a former cop who left her job on the police force because of harassment due to her mental illness. Ryan asked the Examiner not to name the police force she worked for or include the names of her abusers in this article, but she says she has a lot of insight on how police culture contributes to harassment in the workplace and a misunderstanding of domestic violence.
Ryan’s been sharing bits of her story on Twitter as she was working from home and before the mass shootings in Nova Scotia in April. But as more details emerged from the shooting, she started to share more.
How many women are in that situation? How could it be any more obvious this needs to be a priority? It’s not a priority, I don’t think, because of how society still views women.
My experiences as a cop responding to domestic violence gave me the sense that domestic violence was a nuisance to police, no one would believe me or care what was happening and there would be no help for me. In fact, having experienced what I had experienced coming out with my mental health challenges… I expected that if I came out with the domestic violence, I would’ve been treated worse.
Ryan became a cop in 2004 at the age of 24. A career in policing was a lifelong dream and ambition. She spent years training and working in the community. After a few years on general duty, Ryan was assigned to the department’s surveillance team.
But Ryan says the bullying at work started her first day on the job. There were inappropriate sexual comments, including those about her sex life and emails from several supervisors to her about her appearance. She says officers also made racist, sexist, and homophobic comments about members of the public and there was inappropriate behaviour between her colleagues. She says some officers drove home after drinking. She says for her first day on the job she was told to bring a case of beer. Two male colleagues on the surveillance team gave her a degrading nickname. She says she reported it, but was told she was too emotional. She says her supervisor attempted to write into her employee file that she was too emotional.
At the time, Ryan was married to a man who was her first real relationship. She says the relationship was unhealthy; she wasn’t treated as an equal, and as lesser than he because she was a female. That’s a message she says she first heard as a child from her father, who was an addict and alcoholic when she was younger, although for the last 15 years of his life, he was sober and changed. It was also the message she says was rampant at the police department where she worked.
In 2008, Ryan got divorced and was diagnosed with clinical depression. Ryan was open with her colleagues and bosses about her mental health; after all, she was diagnosed with depression by doctors referred to her by the department. She says the depression was triggered not only by the divorce, but the environment at her workplace.
Over that year, Ryan says she worked but also took sick leave. She says her psychologist expressed frustration with the way in which her recovery was being handled at work, and that the psychologist wrote recommendations for how her return to work plan could roll out. Ryan says the department ignored those letters and recommendations.
She says when she reached out for support for her mental health, she was stigmatized, bullied, and isolated. She says when she did something her colleagues didn’t agree with, she wasn’t taken seriously and colleagues would chaulk her behaviour up to her mental illness.
I was very naïve. I had watched other people, mostly men, go through crisis and be well supported. I thought that if I was open about my crisis I’d be well supported. And I wasn’t. It basically ruined my career.
Ryan says rumours made the rounds in the department that she wasn’t doing well. She says confidentialities were broken.
I felt like I could go to the people I worked with for support. It was like a spiral. There was nothing I could do that was right. I was doing a really good job. I was a really good police officer. Prior to all of this happening, I was getting written up for doing really good things. I was getting opportunities other people didn’t get because of my skills. Then all of a sudden everything fell apart.
But Ryan was also struggling in her personal life. She says when she left her marriage, she was extremely vulnerable. Within a year, she met and moved in with another man who was — and still is — an RCMP officer who she describes as a “hardcore abuser.”
She says the abuse got physical and she says he tried to choke her. He worked in a jurisdiction just outside of the municipality where she worked. She says he would cross jurisdictions and watch her work, then criticize her work when they were at home. She says he was feeding into the harassment she was experiencing at work.
She never told her colleagues or bosses about the abuse.
In the thick of the abuse, I lacked a proper understanding of what domestic violence was, and really had no idea how bad of a situation I was in in that relationship. Abuse had become very normalized for me throughout my life, growing up, in my marriage, from the police force, and now with this partner — it just seemed normal and I believed I deserved it. I believed something had been wrong with me all my life to bring this behaviour towards me. So, imagine, if I didn’t have this insight into my own relationship, how could I have appropriately investigated domestic violence cases in my work?
The trouble at work hit a peak when she met with a sergeant. Ryan disclosed details about her personal life. She says the sergeant interrogated her behaviour and asked her to give up her firearm. She later learned that the sergeant had called her abuser’s supervisors to say she was suicidal and to make sure her boyfriend’s firearm wouldn’t be available to her. She says that sergeant also called the police where she lived, including those in leadership, and told them about her mental illness.
Ryan did go back to her job on daytime shift after that, but she says she felt stigmatized at the department and wasn’t given meaningful work. Her firearm was taken from her again during a meeting with an inspector who she says pressured her about her mental illness. Ryan left her job and the department for good in October 2009.
I left out of self-preservation because I had lost hope I would ever be able to build a career there. I was frustrated, I was scared, I was very sad and heartbroken…. And I still carry much of this with me to this day, 10 years later.
She followed her abusive boyfriend to a rural community, but they broke up after he met another woman. She says the people in the community supported her and gave her a place to live.
After leaving policing for good, Ryan went back to school and earned a degree in psychology. She worked as a youth probation officer. It was her boss at this job who found newspaper articles about her former employer being investigated for workplace harassment.
He cut them out and said, ‘You need to say something about what happened to you.’ I’m like God, I just want this to go away. You do. But it hasn’t left me alone. It’s with me every day.
Ryan had saved everything and documented her experiences. It took her a while to put the narrative together, but eventually she wrote a seven-page letter that she sent to two lawyers. She also filed a complaint with her province’s human rights commission, but it was rejected because she filed too late.
Ryan went to school again, earning a bachelor and master’s degrees in social work. She’s a registered social worker with the Nova Scotia College of Social Workers.
She now works as a researcher with Dr. Nancy Ross, who’s an assistant professor at Dalhousie University, on a project about pro-charge, pro-arrest, pro-prosecution policies in Nova Scotia and if those are the best responses for domestic violence cases. For the work, Ryan interviewed several survivors of domestic violence.
The police I worked with did not take the time to be overly compassionate with people or try and understand the context of the situations or even to make referrals to support services. The focus was to bring safety, arrest if you had to, write up your report to the courts, and move on as quickly as possible.
There were a couple files I was a part of [as an officer] that went really bad because of poor handling on my behalf, and I will never forget them. There was absolute lack of understanding and leadership for domestic violence investigations and we did not use the community resources the way we should’ve and again — there was no incentive to do better — just get in and out and get on to the next. If you made an arrest, well that was good because it got counted as a stat because it showed you were productive.
From the interviews I did last summer and fall for the research, I don’t get the sense that much has changed from what my experiences were — this coming from the perspectives of those working in the criminal justice system as well as survivors and perpetrators.
Sixteen years after starting as a cop, Ryan say she has ideas on how the response to domestic violence calls can change for the better. She’s interested in the defund police movement and has listened to the arguments, including those from Robin Maynard, Black feminist writer, activist and educator and author of Policing Black Lives.
Ryan says mental health and addiction services, housing, health care, education, and employment need to be improved. She says a larger culture shift should start with education in schools, disrupting the narratives by survivors and their families by having them share their stories, better leadership in policing, changes to legislation and policies, and more first-voice participation in decision-making.
At this stage, I am not a prison-abolitionist, nor am I in favour of a complete dismantling of policing services, but I do think a level of disruption and transformation needs to occur in the current police services models… where at the very least police are forced to collaborate more with outside agencies, such as social workers, for many of the calls for service, with police attending only for issues of safety, and social workers responding to the details of the situation — especially for domestic violence.
So, I can envision a response to domestic violence where police attend first to ensure safety, and then a team of folks with appropriate skills and training, not police, respond to assess the situation, available 24/7, and decide how to move forward. In extreme cases, I believe the police will have to arrest, and I don’t think that power should be taken away, as I believe there are many cases where arrest and prosecution is needed still.
I don’t think police can do any better at responding to domestic violence, as I think the understanding, training, and specialization required to respond to domestic violence is beyond the scope of policing, and requires a high level of education and training.
I think the only roles for police in responding to domestic violence are to ensure safety, and as a collaborative team member to explore the legal aspects, for example, charge/not charge, with the team of specialized individuals.
Ryan had thought she may one day write a book about her experience. Although she recovered from depression after leaving policing, she says she feels she may have PTSD from the experiences and she still has nightmares, but has never found the right therapist to work with.
The last ten years, I’ve made excuses for how I was treated and policing in general by defending the good apples, but in truth, those good apples were not in leadership and did not support me. It’s time to transform policing as we know it.
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