Sask. Federation of Police: Pierson's death was the final straw

Jay Pierson’s death in early March has sparked a discussion in the community and with the Saskatchewan Federation of Police Officers (SFPO).

Pierson's story of struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as well as the history of his battle with the Estevan board of police commissioners and Workers Compensation Board (WCB) attracted a lot of attention earlier, not only in the community but across Saskatchewan, mainly because of the decision of the board and the WCB to oppose Pierson when he sought benefits.

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The Saskatchewan Court of Queen's Bench awarded Pierson, who dedicated more than 20 years of his life to policing in Estevan, with WCB benefits in June 2020. However, according to his family throughout that time, "Jay felt that the lack of support, both financially and with regard to his mental health struggles, took an enormous toll on his health and personal relationships,” his obituary stated.

Pierson died at the age of 49 due to natural causes. His case raised a lot of questions both about the situation he found himself in, and about the relationship between the Estevan Police Service (EPS) members with Chief Paul Ladouceur and Deputy Chief Murray Cowan.

Casey Ward, the president of the SFPO, pointed out that despite the endless conversations about the role of mental health they don't see much being done by the EPS in that area.

"Our biggest frustration is we have a lot of people out there preaching mental health, especially the chief (Ladouceur) saying that they want to help their members. But here's a classic example of an officer who was struggling and continually appealing decisions. And (the chief was) thinking that an officer wasn't being truthful, even though three separate psychologists/psychiatrists had diagnosed him with PTSD,” said Casey Ward. 

"Another frustration was that even during this whole process when the chief believed him or not, but at no time were additional resources provided. Nothing was done to try to help this officer come back to work.”

He added that in most police services if a member is diagnosed with mental health issues and is struggling to receive workers compensation, the administration usually steps forward and often hires a lawyer to help that member out. That wasn't Pierson's case. The SFPO funded the judicial review, but by the time Pierson won benefits back, the damage has been done, Casey Ward said.

"We feel that the Estevan police really fell down on this. They didn't support (Pierson), they alienated him to the point where he just gave up," Casey Ward said.

Not only did Pierson have to publicly fight for help, but his example rather created an environment, in which members may feel discouraged to reach out for help.

At Pierson’s funeral, Mike Sinclair, former chaplain at the EPS and Pierson's friend, said: "Speaking directly to those who are in policing or emergency services ... I've heard that Jay maybe shouldn't have asked for help. I'm here to challenge that unequivocally. Jay did the right thing when he began to feel himself struggle and asking for help. So if you are struggling in any way, reach out to someone."

However, Casey Ward said that with Pierson's example in hand not too many people would try explaining their situation to the administration.

"Officers have told me that they will not go to the Estevan Police Service, that they're struggling because they know they won't be believed. They saw what happened to Jay," Casey Ward said.

"We lost an amazing person that 100 per cent could have been preventable, there's no doubt in my mind that if he would have got the support, if the chief and deputy chief would have believed him, that this would have happened. And I just don't think there's any way to fix this. And I don't think there's support of the chief in that organization," Casey Ward added.

Talking to Pierson's family and friends during the service Sinclair suggested that it was the time to act.

"If you like me are trying to find a way to deal with all that stuff that is undone about this, I would ask you to find a way, write a letter, make a phone call, talk to anyone who will listen, and ask whoever has the authority to do so, to fix holes in our system."

Several days after the funeral, Johanah Audet, a retired EPS member, publicly voiced her concern about the situation at the EPS through a social media post.

"I am concerned for any member who is currently struggling (or might struggle in the future) that they will suffer in silence because they feel they will be isolated, alienated or bullied by the very people empowered by the board," Audet wrote in her post.

In an interview, she explained why she felt that she had to make the post. 

'We have to regard Jay's death as more than just a sad and untimely event. We have to look at the why. It's too late to help Jay now, sadly, he's gone, but there are still 30 people in that building. There are 30 people who … feel like they have nowhere else to turn, they feel like they're saddled with the burdens of the city and wanting to do a good job and wanting to maintain professionalism, but there's internal pressures in that building … What I've seen out of this administration over the last seven years, was finding joy in the misery of others. And I worry who the next (target) will be."

Audet retired in 2013 before the current administration came in, but throughout the years she stayed in touch and remained informed about things happening at the station, and she pointed out that the work at the EPS has never been the way it is under the leadership of the current chief.

Barry Schulte, another retired EPS member, also had a tough experience with the service under the current administration and has been hearing a lot of nerve-wracking stories from the active members throughout the past seven years. He added that through his career he worked with different chiefs, but Estevan police was always a good place to work up until seven years ago.

At any service, the police chief is supposed to be a leader of the police department, well-respected in the community and amongst other police members. However, in 2020 Ladouceur was asked not to come to the funeral of former chief Del Block. The Pierson family also asked that the EPS administration would not attend the funeral and give no official statements around the funeral time.

After Audet's message went viral in the community, Mayor Roy Ludwig responded to it on behalf of the city council and the Estevan police board of commissioners.

"Please know that the board of police commissioners is committed to working closely with the membership along with the administration of the Estevan Police Service for the betterment of the organization and the city," Ludwig said. "As we move forward, the board of police commissioners is actively engaging with both the membership and administration to develop a full and complete understanding of the issues and concerns at hand.”

On March 24, Jay Pierson's sister Kelly Pierson, and his ex-wife Amanda Pierson published their response calling for more action and thorough investigation.

They also pointed out that by continuing to question the board's actions in Pierson's case, they are trying to ensure that other EPS members and their families won't face anything similar to what they went through. They would like to have a chance to share with the police board what Jay endured over the past four years to help ensure that other officers do not have similar experiences.

Ludwig said Kelly and Amanda Pierson have been invited to speak at the next police board meeting.

Both Schulte and Audet said that members still have a strong network and they all do their best to keep to the standard in their work. However, people interviewed for this article said that there might be other "Jays" in the police building as of right now, and if nothing changes it is just a matter of time when someone else breaks down.

"My fear is that every person has a breaking point," Audet said.

Schulte, who got to work under Ladouceur's administration for about a year, said he put in his accumulated days off to retire earlier to make sure he didn't get into an open conflict with the chief. What was a good place to work throughout most of his career, at that time became a memory. 

Several interviewees described the environment at the EPS as "toxic," which decreases the chances that members, even if facing serious problems, will reach out or receive help. While there are many different stories about what's going on behind the police station walls, all of them overlapped in describing a lack of trust and support, fear and low morale among the membership.

In an email to the Mercury, Police Chief Paul Ladouceur said that processes exist within the organization for staff to address concerns.

“These processes include discussions with administration, formal grievance processes and consultation with the association,” Ladouceur said.

“The administration and association meet regularly to discuss any concerns. The service does not use social media or public venues to discuss or resolve any internal matters which may arise. As stated previously by the Estevan board of police commissioners, the board, association and administration have been conducting meetings to discuss any concerns.”

Casey Ward pointed out that it's the employer's duty to provide a safe and respectable workplace and assist the members if they're struggling. The police board’s appeal of Pierson’s case resulted in “distrust in the chief,” Casey Ward said.

"Every police association wants to be in good working relationship with management, because in the police world, we, police officers, just want to go out and serve our community and don't want to be worried about all those other things," said Casey Ward.

He added that Pierson's untimely death was the final straw for many EPS members.

"There's a lot of members there that are really struggling and hurting. They don't believe the chief will have their back at any time and will just basically make their life worse if they do come forward to try to ask for help. You can spend money on programs, but if you don't have your boss or your person that believes in you, that support, all the organizations, all those things aren't going to work because people aren't just going to sign up for them," Casey Ward said.

© Copyright Estevan Mercury

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