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Suspended B.C. Mountie says theft due to PTSD

06/18/2012 10:27 EDT | Updated 08/18/2012 05:12 EDT

A Burnaby, B.C., mountie says the RCMP discriminated against him by suspending him without pay for problems caused by post-traumatic stress disorder.

Const. Derrick Holdenried was charged with theft in January 2011 after he was accused of stealing $22 in loose change from a community policing station.

The charge was ultimately stayed, and psychologists have attributed the 39-year-old's behaviour to post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of attending a "horrific" suicide scene.

Holdenried says he's been left in limbo — a victim of the RCMP's desire to look like it's being tough on "bad apples."

"The job made me sick," he told CBC News.

"I am not a bad apple. I am a good person who is trusted and respected and loved by those who know me. I have struggled for two years to deal with this, and it's damaged my family. It's damaged me, and it's damaged the image of the RCMP as well — and I regret that.

"But I need the RCMP to understand that there is a lot more going on here than just 'a bad apple.'"

Consequences vary

The RCMP wouldn't comment on the specifics of Holdenried's case, except to say a date for a formal disciplinary hearing has yet to be set.

Possible sanctions could include "reprimand, loss of up to 10 days pay, demotion and dismissal."

Holdenried says he's been told the force wants to get rid of him.

He appealed his suspension without pay in Federal Court and filed a complaint to the Canadian Human Rights Commission claiming the RCMP "failed to accommodate him and his disability, post-traumatic stress disorder, when it took a disciplinary approach to conduct caused by disability."

He questions the decision to pursue criminal charges and release his name to the media. He says publicity around the case has devastated his family and made it impossible for him to find other work while he appeals his suspension without pay.

Holdenried feels he's been dealt with harshly — especially compared to other high-profile cases of RCMP misconduct like a recent decision to demote and transfer a member who had sex with subordinates and exposed himself to a co-worker.

"It would seem that members who act out violently or abuse alcohol, there doesn't seem to be the same consequences that I'm facing. So if I had drove while impaired and been caught — I'm not sure I'd be sitting here today with the story I have," he says.

Caught stealing change

Holdenried graduated from RCMP Depot in January 2009 at the age of 35. He left a job at Ikea, where he worked for years as a manager, to pursue a dream of policing. His father was a police officer, and he says he always dreamed of public service.

According to documents filed in the court case, RCMP began investigating him in November 2010 when a member of the Burnaby School/Youth Section complained change had gone missing from her desk. One supervisor told her to lock her drawer, and at another point, she considered leaving a note for the thief to see.

Instead, supervisors mounted a camera above the desk and an electronic sensor on the drawer, in which they placed a steadily increasing amount of change.

On three occasions, the camera caught Holdenried removing a total of nine toonies and four loonies. He was interviewed on Dec. 8, 2010 and immediately admitted taking the money, initially blaming the behaviour on "stupidity."

RCMP member services referred Holdenried to a psychologist, who diagnosed post-traumatic stress-disorder linked to his attendance at the suicide of an 84-year-old man who shot himself in March 2010.

According to the investigation notes: "All surfaces in the room were covered with a fine spray of blood and other tissue" and it took "substantial force to pull the rifle" from the man's hands.

Holdenried spent hours in the room, taking dozens of pictures of the scene and the wounds.

"Really, that scene is seared in my head," he says. 'I don't think I've ever seen anything as troubling as that.

"That scene, and what I was confronted with on that day, would vividly come to mind at any number of times. And it could be the smallest trigger and then I'd be in that room, smelling the smells and seeing what I had dealt with on that day."

Theft 'symptomatic' of PTSD

In the months leading up to the thefts, Holdenried became withdrawn and tired. He started binging on junk food and drinking as much six litres of pop a day.

Rick Hancock, the psychologist who diagnosed Holdenried, wrote a letter on his behalf to the RCMP.

"I believe the taking of loose change from an office desk is symptomatic of Const. Holdenried's psychological condition following the discovery of the horrific suicide," Hancock wrote.

"If I had had the opportunity to assess Const. Holdenried in the spring or summer of 2010, I would without a doubt have suggested that he consider a stress leave from work."

The RCMP asked a psychologist from its behavioural sciences group to review Hancock's opinion.

Dr. Teal Maedel wrote her report without meeting Holdenried. She says that while it is clear he may be suffering from work-related symptoms of PTSD, "it is very difficult to say with certainty that post-traumatic stress disorder was the causal factor in Holdenried's thefts."

Based on that opinion, Assistant Commissioner Daniel Dubeau stopped Holdenried's pay on May 13, 2011.

Last month, a Federal Court judge refused to hear his request for judicial review of that decision because he hasn't exhausted the internal RCMP grievance process.

But his lawyer argued that could take up to three years.

'I was an excellent member of the RCMP'

Holdenried says both Veteran's Affairs and Employment Insurance have accepted claims based on his PTSD diagnosis. And he apologized to the constable whose change he took, offering to make restitution. She asked for $20.

"I've always been honest about what I did," he says. "And I took responsibility. I've made my apologies. I've dealt with the criminal case which resulted in a stay of proceedings. I've done everything that's been asked of me and more to correct this as much as I can. What I would expect is accommodation."

Holdenried says even if he can't be a front-line officer, he would like to be part of the RCMP. He notes that a Crown counsel also recently contacted him to testify in connection with a criminal case he investigated while still on duty.

"I asked if he was aware of the situation I was in and if that was a concern," he says. "He has no concerns with me testifying and doesn't see it as an issue.

Commissioner Bob Paulson recently wrote an open letter to Canadians vowing to speed up the force's disciplinary process.

Holdenried says he applauds any attempt to do that, but he says it has to be accompanied by attempts to understand the problems members face.

"The discipline process must be more streamlined and must be able to deal with a number of the issues the RCMP is facing. But there's so much more to this than simply a discipline issue," he says.

"I was an excellent member of the RCMP who had a human reaction to a very traumatic event. But they don't want to hear it. It doesn't matter. But it matters to me and other people who find themselves in this situation — it's going to matter to them. And any adjustment to a discipline process has to take that into account."

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