“Sometimes they can be helpful, but often the interaction is traumatizing,
making the situation worse and not meeting the safety needs of the victim.
The responses are inconsistent and often alarming.”: Elissa Robertson of Belleville’s Structural Violence Accountability Alliance.
Battered, beaten and broken during a terrifying domestic assault, Elissa Robertson, of Belleville, Ontario, found herself facing criminal charges for using dog spray in self-defence on her abuser, after she reported the attack to police. Those charges were laid by the same police force to which she had turned for help – the Belleville Police Service.
She says she also endured numerous instances of victim blaming by Belleville Police Service (BPS) officers following her report. Her charges were eventually withdrawn.
To read her full story, see https://journeymagazineptbo.com/2021/02/09/elissas-story-criminally-charged-after-reporting-violent-assault-by-partner/
Now she’s making a stand against these “problematic interactions” with the help of a local committee she helped to recently establish with other community members, groups and agencies in Belleville. They have chosen the name “Structural Violence Accountability Alliance” (SVAA) for the committee, and are collaborating with the Belleville Peaceful Streets Network and and Warrior Women of Quinte.
“The goal is to group together people from our community in order to create and implement a plan to address the problematic interactions between Belleville police and survivors of violence in our community,” she said in a recent interview with JOURNEY Magazine Ptbo.
“Calling the police for assistance regarding domestic or sexual violence can be a gamble and you never know what type of police response you will receive.”Elissa Robertson
During a recent online brainstorming session, the committee came up with a number of ideas, she said, with the voices of survivors to be at the centre of all its projects. (See below for a list of projects).
In an earlier email interview, Robertson said a lot of other women have had similar experiences as she with Belleville police: not being believed, being blamed, being punished for being a victim, being held to stereotypes about violence and what a victim looks like, and having police unfairly decide which women are deserving of safety.
“Calling the police for assistance regarding domestic or sexual violence can be a gamble and you never know what type of police response you will receive,” she said. “Sometimes they can be helpful, but often the interaction is traumatizing, making the situation worse and not meeting the safety needs of the victim. The responses are inconsistent and often alarming.”
Tina Shiers is also a member of the newly-formed Alliance who says she felt compelled to join the group because of the “many issues” she has experienced in her personal dealings with BPS.
“For one reason or another the police don’t take us seriously when we try to report,” she said. “Some of us are criminalized and therefore we are ‘unreliable’. Some of us are made into criminals because of our trying to report violence and abuse . . . It can’t happen anymore.”
“We formed to help these survivors know that they aren’t alone and there are options and help available, and to ensure that every time someone reports to BPS they walk away empowered and safe,” Shiers said.
When both people are charged by police in domestic violence incident, as in Robertson’s case, it is called “dual charging”. The resulting criminalization can have serious consequences for women, explained Amber Wardell, Communications and Resource Coordinator at Ontario Association of Interval & Transition Houses.
“It’s definitely a problem. Recent research shows 4 to 9% of domestic violence charges are duel charges in Canada,” she told JOURNEY Magazine.
As a result, women who are charged may refrain from seeking help in the future and the abuse continues; the charges may affect their immigration/refugee status, or lead to a Children’s Aid investigation, she said.
It is often because police lay charges based on gender-neutral policies, which do not take into account the history of abuse in the home, or the power imbalances, Wardell continued, or men may provide false information. Police need to have a high level of domestic violence knowledge to figure out who is the dominant aggressor, she said. They also need to rely on experts who are specially trained to deal with domestic violence and who can develop a rapport with women, collect forensic evidence and connect women to appropriate services, she added.
“They (police) are never going to figure out (the dominant aggressor) if they can’t engage her in a way that makes her feel safe,” she said.
Robertson said that although most officers are trained to never dual charge, as it harms victims and makes prosecution of either party difficult, still these charging methods persist.
“I contacted the (BPS) department and put in a freedom of information request to have someone go through each domestic violence case one by one covering the past two years to see if they could give me a number on how many dual charging cases occurred,” she continued.
“Although my case would have been within the time period, the person who conducted the search told me that there were zero cases of dual charging in that time span,” said Robertson. “I followed up multiple times to ask what search criteria was used, but never received a response back. It’s very difficult to draw attention to an issue that there isn’t local data on. It also makes it very difficult for accountability to take place.”
Staff Sgt. Mike Kiley of Belleville Police Service says it takes domestic violence “very seriously”.
Staff Sgt. Mike Kiley of Belleville Police Service, who responds to media queries, told JOURNEY Magazine Ptbo that BPS takes domestic violence “very seriously” and there are several services in place within BPS and the court system to help victims. There are specific protocols for dealing with domestic violence, and officers are trained in that area, he said. He was not aware that a Structural Violence Accountability Alliance had formed, and could not comment on it, he said. Nor could he comment on Robertson’s individual case.
“There are people that are available to victims, and counselling can be offered to them. Officers have received training in domestic violence situations and there is a full-time domestic violence co-ordinator,” said Kiley.
The co-ordinator’s role is to look at cases to ensure that the proper investigation took place, ensure proper policies are followed through the court case, and to meet with the Crown and Victim Services, he said.
Regarding the policy of dual charging, he said he was unsure of the practice at BPS.
“I wouldn’t think it’s a common thing. Each incident is looked at individually and if there are grounds to lay, then charges will be laid,” he said.
The mission statement of the Structural Violence Accountability Alliance is: “As a collaboration of local agencies, groups, and community members, we strive to improve outcomes for survivors who report domestic violence, sexual violence, and other harassment or abuse to the police. Our projects are focused on increasing police accountability, dismantling the structural violence and systemic oppression that many survivors of violence experience, educating the community on relevant resources and issues while elevating the voices of survivors in our community.“
Project Ideas and Areas of Discussion of the SVAA:
- Creation and circulation of a survey for survivors regarding their experiences when reporting to police following a domestic violence incident. “We want to get an overall picture of what these interactions look like as a community as a whole,” said Robertson. It will also be an opportunity for survivors to give ideas and suggestions about what what works well and what improvements can be made. The committee has finished creating the survey and it’s set to be released Feb. 15.
- Reallocation of police funds to employ social workers to oversee and conduct interviews, provide support, and provide police accountability, noting it would be helpful for the police to have someone trained in these areas.
- Robertson said a few years ago The Globe and Mail wrote about the large number of sexual assaults that were reported to police across Canada, but which were listed as “unfounded” by police. Belleville was no exception, she said. Since then, many police departments across the country created collaborative review committees to review unfounded cases, and some cases were reopened. But Belleville Police Service did not, “and that’s something we’d like to ask for as well,” she said.
- Support for women who must attend court at the same time as their abuser.
- Realisation by police that many women’s offences are trauma-based and a result of social issues, such as using drugs to cope; homelessness; self-defence. The creation of more legal support and help for criminalized women is needed, explained Robertson.
- Creation of general hashtag where people can share their experiences of reporting to police, because it exists everywhere.
- Group members would like to receive a copy of Belleville Police Service protocols, polices and procedures to read and then write a report on what might be helpful and what might be more reflective of the needs of women.
- More training of police officers and more information about the kind and frequency of training that officers take.
By Melodie McCullough