“We had to arrest someone! And your husband called 911 first that’s why we have to arrest you.” ~ RCMP Patrol Officer 2016
By Rosa Elena Arteaga and Angela Marie MacDougall
Back in 2008, Battered Women’s Support Services confronted the growing problem of police services misapplying “pro-arrest” policies and criminalizing battered women for self-defending in domestic violence situations. We came to this confrontation authentically when we began supporting a growing number of women who were arrested for allegedly perpetrating domestic violence against their male partner and these arrests occurred despite the fact that in all cases the women were in relationships where their male partners were abusing them. This was evidenced by previous police reports, hospital/doctor visits, child witnesses and neighbour or co-worker accounts.
So why would a battered woman be arrested? That’s a good question…
In the 1990’s women’s organizations in Canada and the U.S. sought to hold violent husbands accountable through addressing law enforcement complicity and developed policies that guide police behaviour when they arrive at a domestic violence situation. BWSS was a key player in the creation of B.C.’s first mandatory arrest policy announced by former Attorney General Ujjal Dosangh in 1992. Former BWSS staff member Janet Freeman created an assessment tool way back in 1991 which she called The Myth of Mutual Battering which continues to inform law enforcement arrest policies in B.C.
Most of the literature attributes the increase in women being arrested to the application of pro arrest, pro charge, no drop and mandatory arrest policies (often collectively referred to as ‘mandatory charge’ policies). Police may feel compelled by these policies to arrest any party who has perpetrated violence, regardless of the context. Ironically and unfortunately, these arrest policies are sometimes being used against the very people whom they were designed to protect, battered women. What BWSS has observed through dozens of women we have supported since 2008 is that the vast majority of women who have been arrested are Immigrant women, mostly racialized, and their male partners are white Canadian born men.
We have also noted that this emerging concern has been mostly limited to various RCMP detachments in B.C., rather than municipal police forces. We think that’s interesting and there’s much more to say which we will have to save that for another time. The “pro-arrest” policy we are talking about here is the Violence against Women in Relationships (VAWIR) policy.
In 2010 BWSS, empowered by battered women who had been wrongfully arrested, began filing police complaints in tandem or on behalf of battered women. There were three RCMP jurisdictions with egregious VAWIR violations and for the most part this strategy combined with face to face meetings seemed to help address the internal operational shortcomings for one RCMP jurisdiction.
There are huge legal, social, economic and emotional consequences for battered women who are arrested, which may include the involvement of the Ministry of Child and Family Development (MCFD), the loss of child custody to a violent partner, the inability to find employment due to a criminal conviction, incarceration and even deportation. These consequences add significantly to the burden already being shouldered by women who are victims of relationship violence. What’s more, battered women’s negative experience of the criminal justice system generally and the RCMP specifically may in many cases make them more vulnerable to further abuse including lethal violence.
And for the women’s children, they are not only witnessing the abuse of their mother by their father (or father figure) they are witnessing the RCMP reinforce their mother’s victimization and empower the abusive father further.
Presently, provincial funded victim services across B.C. are unable to provide support services to battered women who have been arrested. Battered women who have been arrested would not likely be eligible for transitions houses or crime victim assistance programs also.
In 2014, BWSS co-hosted Women on Trial with Reel Causes which included a screening of Crime After Crime, the story of Deborah Peagler, a woman convicted of killing her violent male partner. The event boasted a Justice Panel moderated by Laura Track, West Coast LEAF with Amy Salmon, Board Member Bonding With Babies – Reproductive and Social Justice, Angela Marie MacDougall, BWSS Executive Director – When Battered Women Are Arrested, Elizabeth Sheehy, University of Ottawa – Defending Battered Women on Trial, and Victoria Desroches, Criminal Lawyer – Defending Indigenous Women.
BWSS Remains Vigilant
In 2016, we continue doing this work as one of the only organizations in B.C. supporting women who have been arrested. We have amped up our systemic advocacy on this point after several unconscionable missteps by the RCMP and more police complaints are on the way.
In 2017, in an initiative called Responding to Complex Presentations of Violence against Women Interfacing with the Law (funded by the Ministry of the Solicitor General and My Sister’s Closet) BWSS will endeavor to address some the most challenging situations of when violence against women survivors interface with legal systems in a negative way. As established, the initiative will emphasize four areas of battered women’s vulnerability due to systemic oppression:
- when they are arrested for allegedly perpetrating domestic violence,
- when they are incarcerated for criminal convictions arising out of post trauma coping behaviour before, during and post release, impacting Indigenous women disproportionately , and/or when
- they have precarious immigration status or are Refugees or recent Immigrants as well as
- when they are self-representing in family law situations
If you would like more information about “women arrest” and/or Responding to Complex Presentations of Violence against Women Interfacing with the Law please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or call our crisis line (toll free) at 1-855-687-1868.
You can make a difference in the lives of battered women wrongfully arrested please make a gift today and we thank you for your commitment.
Rosa Elena Arteaga is BWSS Manager of Direct Services and Clinical Practice
Angela Marie MacDougall is BWSS Executive Director