Ontario woman sues provincial police after waiting years for complaint against officer to be dealt with
Years after filing a complaint to the province’s police watchdog, Moosonee resident Cheryl Hookimaw says she still sees Sgt. Randy Cota in her small community regularly.
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Cheryl Hookimaw didn’t want to file a complaint. But after experiencing what she alleges was harassment and abusive behaviour from a veteran Ontario Provincial Police sergeant working in her isolated James Bay community, she decided she’d had enough.
In 2014, Hookimaw turned to the Office of the Independent Police Review Director (OIPRD), Ontario’s police watchdog, filing a formal complaint against an officer she knew she’d still see all over Moosonee, her largely Cree community policed by the OPP.
“I thought it was the right thing to do,” Hookimaw told the Star in an email. “I thought my family would be protected.”
The resulting investigation by the OPP’s professional standards bureau alleges Sgt. Randy Cota engaged in “numerous inappropriate behaviours” involving Hookimaw and her husband, each of which constituted misconduct, according to the police investigative report into Hookimaw’s complaint.
That included allegations the officer threatened Hookimaw, made disparaging comments about her “of a sexual nature,” obtained her personal information in a police database, and was “less than forthright” with investigators probing the complaint, among other allegations contained in Cota’s notice of hearing, a police document outlining his alleged misconduct.
In January 2015, Cota was charged with one count of corrupt practice under Ontario’s Police Services Act, a charge laid when an officer is accused of improperly using his character or influence as a police officer for private advantage. The allegations have not been tested at a tribunal.
Indeed, three years after filing the complaint, Cota’s misconduct hearing has been repeatedly delayed with little explanation, according to Hookimaw and her lawyer, Cara Valiquette.
Staff Sgt. Carolle Dionne, a spokesperson for the OPP, confirmed to the Star that Cota’s next hearing date is in November. Asked why the hearing has been delayed, Dionne said Cota has been on an approved paid absence and the hearing cannot proceed as a result.
“The hearing will take place if Sgt. Cota returns from his approved absence. If not, it may be deferred to a later date,” she said in an email.
Dionne could not say why Cota is on approved absence.
Meanwhile Hookimaw and her husband Xavier Hookimaw see Cota “all the time” in the community and claim his behaviour has continued while the misconduct case moves at a sluggish pace.
Alleging ongoing harassment, intimidation and abusive conduct, late last year the Hookimaws filed a $1.5 million lawsuit against the OPP and Cota. Among the lawsuit’s claims is that Cota had been driving slowly past their residence and workplace and staring at them and that, in late 2015, a close friend of Cota’s went to the Hookimaws’ home and asked them to drop the OIPRD complaint.
Valiquette says her clients feel their formal complaint has “only caused more damages in terms of increased stress and pain.”
Both Cota and the Crown — which is responsible for the conduct of OPP officers, and is being sued by the Hookimaws alongside Cota — have filed separate statements of defence denying the allegations.
In emails to the Star, Norman Groot, Cota’s lawyer, said his client has both a “substantive and procedural defence,” including that too much time has passed since some of the alleged conduct for it to be heard in court.
“I understand that the officer is a native Canadian himself, has served the OPP and the citizens of Ontario well for many years, has worked in undercover capacity for a while, which also caused stress to his personal life,” Groot said in an email, adding he did not know why the disciplinary process has “not progressed quicker than it has.”
Cota’s detailed statement of defence, filed in court in July, specifically denied inflicting emotional suffering, misconduct and harassment, including the allegations he’d been driving slowly past the Hookimaw’s residence and staring.
“In fact, there were incidents in which Mr. Hookimaw behaved in a threatening and harassing way towards Cota,” it reads.
The legal battle comes months after Ontario Court of Appeal Justice Michael Tulloch highlighted the problems with the public complaint process specific to Indigenous communities in his review of police oversight in the province.
In a chapter dedicated to Indigenous communities and police oversight, Tulloch summarized his findings from public consultations, saying many Indigenous people “felt targeted by law enforcement and subjected to negative stereotypes.”
Few Indigenous peoples knew they could file a complaint with the OIPRD, Tulloch said — and those who did told him they feared retribution if they took that step.
“This concern was particularly acute for First Nations communities served by the OPP,” Tulloch wrote. “Members of these communities told me that if they raised their concerns about the OPP, then their communities may suffer.”
Rosemary Parker, spokesperson for the OIPRD, said in an email that in the Hookimaw case, the complaint process was expedient, the investigation completed by the OPP’s professional standards bureau “well within the target of 120 days,” despite legislation allowing for six months.
Parker noted that the OIPRD is not responsible for disciplinary hearings. Under Ontario’s Police Act, hearings are the purview of the police chief or the OPP commissioner.
Parker added the OIPRD recognizes that complainants may fear retribution from police for making a complaint and that special provisions under the watchdog’s legislation make it punishable, by fine or jail time, to harass, coerce or intimidate someone in connection to a complaint.
According to Cheryl Hookimaw’s lawsuit, the dispute stems from Cota’s failed attempts to initiate a romantic relationship after they first met at a children’s Halloween party in 2012, while Cheryl was an employee of Child and Family Services. After their meeting, Cota began contacting her by phone and email, telling her he had found her information by searching her name in his police system, according to her statement of claim.
Cota’s notice of hearing alleges the officer conducted a query “unrelated” to his duties on November 1, 2012. Cota’s response to the lawsuit, however, claims he did not do the search to obtain personal information but to make inquiries into a complaint she’d made about a previous interaction with another OPP officer.
The Hookimaws’ lawsuit alleges that after their meeting, Cota spent the next year trying to have a relationship and gave Cheryl Hookimaw numerous gifts, including $2,000 cash. In 2014, when she began dating Xavier, Cota — who was then on an extended absence from the OPP — told her he disapproved and would “go after” Xavier when he was back on duty, according to the Hookimaws’ claim.
Tensions peaked in July, 2014 when Cota became involved in an assault investigation stemming from a party attended by Cheryl and Xavier Hookimaw. According to the Hookimaws’ lawsuit, neither Cheryl nor Xavier were involved in the assault, but the incident set off a series of alarming actions by Cota, including “intimidating and threatening witnesses” in an attempt to pressure them into incriminating Xavier Hookimaw in the assault.
The Hookimaw lawsuit also alleges Cota came to their residence and, “shouting and swearing,” demanded Cheryl Hookimaw give back the gifts he’d provided to her or he would remove Xavier Hookimaw from their house. He also demanded to know details of an “alleged sexual interaction” she had with a witness at the house party, according to the lawsuit.
The OPP’s notice of hearing alleges a series of misconduct in connection to the fallout from the assault, including: failing to declare a conflict of interest when working on the investigation; “unnecessarily” taking over the investigation from a colleague; misleading a senior officer about the nature of the investigation; threatening to charge a witness if he did not provide information that Xavier Hookimaw had committed a criminal offence; and making inaccurate and/or misleading notes about an interaction with Xavier Hookimaw.
In his statement of defence, Cota denies the Hookimaw’s allegations of misconduct in connection to the assault investigation. Specifically, he denies conducting the investigation “in an attempt to target Mr. Hookimaw as a suspect, or that he used the threat of charging Mr. Hookimaw in an attempt to extort property from Mrs. Hookimaw.”
The statement of defence also says Cota and Cheryl Hookimaw had developed a friendship, which included frequent emails from Cheryl to his work address, and that the gifts she alleges he gave her were in fact loans. That included the $2,000, which he says was to help her pay for a lawyer in “a legal matter before the Courts,” according to his statement of defence.
The officer also denies the allegations of ongoing harassment since he has been charged with misconduct. Instead, he alleges he was over at a friend’s house when Xavier Hookimaw “aggressively” drove his truck toward him, skidded to a stop, then yelled obscenities at him, and demanding that Cota “stop looking” at him all over town.
Cota’s statement of defence also alleges a second incident of harassment by Xavier Hookimaw, saying that while he was standing on the street corner in conversation with another man, Xavier Hookimaw drove up to him and began yelling insults.
“Mr. Hookimaw demanded that Cota ‘leave them alone,’ and that he ‘stop looking’ at them,” reads the statement of defence.
Tulloch’s wide ranging report on police oversight makes 129 recommendations, some of which are geared toward improving police oversight in Indigenous communities. Among them are recommendations that Ontario’s police oversight bodies develop and deliver, in partnership with Indigenous communities, mandatory Indigenous cultural competency training for staff.
Following the release of Tulloch’s report, Attorney General Yasir Naqvi committed to working with police oversight bodies to “increase cultural competency through staff training and targeted recruitment, including Indigenous cultural competence.”
In a news conference at Queen’s Park last week, Caitlyn Kasper, lawyer with Aboriginal Legal Services, urged the Ontario government and its police watchdogs to form “meaningful and equitable partnerships with Indigenous people, communities and organizations.
“Then the development of social and cultural competency training can occur,” she said.
Tulloch’s report also states that for the police complaint system to be effective and accountable, the process complaints must be “resolved in a transparent, timely, and fair manner.”
Had the complaint process in this case been expedient and transparent, the Hookimaws may not have sued, said Valiquette, their lawyer. Instead, the system “failed the clients and the tax paying public.”
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