Right now in Canada and the US, police brutality and misconduct are under mass scrutiny. The need for police accountability and transparency has never been more apparent.
In light of the suspicious death of Regis Korchinski-Paquet, an Afro-Indigenous woman living in Toronto and the killing of Chantel Moore, a 26-year-old woman of the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation on Vancouver Island in British Columbia, who was fatally shot by a police officer during a wellness check in New Brunswick, it is evident that Black and Indigenous women are at much greater risk of police killings in Canada.
While statistics are not available in Canada by police, the CBC complied a database of every person who died or was killed during a police intervention from 2000 to the end of 2017 and they found that Black and Indigenous people were severely overrepresented.
We want to contribute to the conversation by examining how police hold their members accountable for police-involved domestic violence and killings.
Earlier this week, the Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner (OPCC) ordered a retired judge to review the Vancouver Police Department’s disciplinary decision that dismissed allegations of a Vancouver police officer repeatedly physically assaulting his girlfriend. The judgment failed to fully consider the woman’s evidence, and relied on myths and stereotypes about the dynamics of gender-based violence in intimate partner relationships.
This is certainly not the first time police have been perpetrators of “domestic violence”. In January 2015, a Vancouver Police Department (VPD) officer was arrested and charged with two counts of unlawful confinement of a young woman and her mother, as well as one count of assault causing bodily harm against the mother. The man involved in the alleged assault was an off-duty police officer who has been on the force for 10 years and has now been taken from “front line duties, pending the results of the investigation.” BWSS responded immediately highlighting critical concerns relating to police accountability and the safety of women victims.
At BWSS, a significant part of our work and energy is spent on advocacy for police accountability ensuring they follow their own policies and investigations when it comes to assaults.
In 2017, VPD Detective Constable Jim Fisher was arrested and charged with three counts of sexual exploitation, one count of sexual assault, one count of breach of trust, and one count of attempt to obstruct justice against two young women, one of whom was under age. The VPD’s counter-exploitation unit is responsible for and responds to cases involving sexual exploitation/human trafficking along with online exploitation of children and, child luring and child pornography. Jim Fisher used his badge and delegation of power in this specially-designed unit to gain access to these specific women and girls, in which he was in a position of trust and a figure of authority assigned to investigate the exact assaults he himself had committed.
Several studies have found that the intimate partners of police officers suffer “domestic violence” at rates significantly higher than the general population. Two studies have found that at least 40% of police officers’ families experience domestic violence, in contrast to 10% of families in the general population. A third study of older and more experienced officers found a rate of 24%, indicating that domestic violence is 2-4 times more common among police families than American families in general. A police department that has domestic violence offenders among its ranks will not effectively serve and protect victims in the community. Moreover, when officers know of domestic violence committed by their colleagues and protect them by covering it up, they expose the department to civil liability.
When women are victims of violence by their male partners who are also members of police services, they are in a uniquely vulnerable situation. When women experiencing abuse consider police a part of their safety plan, they are entrusting the police. Women who are subject to abuse by a member of police services may actually be unable to receive assistance as police services may not be a safe resource for them.
In many cases of domestic violence against women, the main witness is more often the woman herself, and her testimony is crucial to proving the allegations of abuse. It is routine that the woman’s credibility is weighed with the accused and determined through examination of the evidence. When the accused is a member of police services, his status is authoritative and as a respected member of the community therefore given more weight than the woman victim.
Many women will not report domestic or sexual violence to the police as they risk being retraumatized, not only by the inhumane process of reliving a violent experience through sharing the details, but also by the violence of the criminal justice system itself, which treats victims like suspects. According to Statistics Canada, 35 of the sexual assault cases (nearly 40 per cent) that were reported to Kelowna RCMP in 2019 were dismissed as unfounded. In 2017, The Globe and Mail reported that police in Canada dismiss 1 in 5 cases of sexual assault claims as baseless.
Police committing domestic violence is concerning for several reasons.
Police officers’ romantic partners who are women may be especially vulnerable and reluctant to report violence. Women are also more vulnerable because their partners who are police officers have a gun, and likely knows how to manipulate the system to avoid penalty and/or shift blame to the victim. They may feel scared to report the violence out of fear that police officers will side with the abuser and not investigate the matter properly, which is completely warranted given the history of how police departments have handled cases of police-perpetrated violence. Women may be aware that reports of abuse made to a police department will not be kept confidential within that police department. Women may also be concerned that reporting domestic violence will impact the accused officer’s employment,thus,she may fear retaliation by other police service personnel, his family and friends, as well as the accused.
A US study found that most police departments typically handle cases of police family violence informally, often without an official report, investigation, or even checking the victim’s safety. This informal method is often in direct contradiction to legislative mandates and departmental policies regarding the appropriate response to domestic violence crimes.
The reality is, even when police officers are found guilty of domestic violence they are unlikely to be fired, arrested, or referred for prosecution, raising concern that those who are tasked with enforcing the law cannot effectively police themselves.
What needs to happen to police officers who commit domestic violence
When there is evidence of gender-based violence by police officers, they should be removed from the police department. They should no longer have the privilege of participating in law enforcement and it is the responsibility of the police department to remove him from duty.
Sometimes, the victim of domestic violence gets arrested
For over a decade, at BWSS we have responded to wrongful arrests of survivors of intimate partner violence. In 2008, we became alarmed by the growing number of women, mostly Indigenous, Black and/or Immigrant/Women of Colour, who accessed our services who had been wrongfully arrested for allegedly perpetrating domestic violence against their male partners. Since then, BWSS has been supporting arrested women while advocating for police accountability.
It is essential for police in Canada to acknowledge and eliminate the ingrained culture of sexism, colonialism, and racism within the police and make changes. The demand for accountability is not new. There needs to be change.