February 13, 2013

III. Police Failures to Protect Indigenous Women and Girls

Women and Girls’ Lack of Confidence in Police Protection

What would they do to me if I need to call the cops? Police officers – you’re supposed to look up to them. I needed help and they didn’t help me. We’ve been having gang people come to our house. Who do we call? It’s just pretty sad. We’ve got nobody to go to for help.
¾Sophie B., who was assaulted by a police officer when he responded to a distress call

Police abuse undermines women and girls’ safety far beyond the direct physical consequences of any physical mistreatment. The impact is felt in the reticence of indigenous women and girls to call the police for help when they fear or have experienced violence. The problem is not limited to those who have experienced police abuse directly. According to a youth service provider, addressing the exploitation of girls by other youth in co-ed programs run by some organizations has been challenging because the girls do not trust the RCMP enough to report.[168] The possibility of abuse in cells also inhibits some community members from turning to the police when they see youth in a compromised position. One woman whose sister was raped by a police officer decades ago and who since has received periodic reports of police rape from others told Human Rights Watch:

Every time we see drunk kids stumbling around the streets it’s hard to know whether to let them stay on the street vulnerable to what can happen on the street or to call the RCMP, given my brother’s and my sister’s experiences. I remember all the things that have happened. What do you do? Leave them vulnerable to perverts on the street or call the RCMP and risk that they could be abused sexually or physically?[169]

Police Response to Disappearances and Murders

The E-PANA task force on the unsolved Highway of Tears cases is an important step forward. However, it does not on its own ensure that all cases of missing and murdered women in the north are handled with due diligence. As noted, some estimates put the number of cases of missing and murdered women along Highway 16 at more than 40, more than double the number taken up by E-PANA.[170] In addition, the task force does not reach cases that are mishandled at the point they are reported. A leader in the indigenous community with a law enforcement background told Human Rights Watch that he reported a 14-year-old girl missing from a group home in late 2011.[171] He said the officer taking the report initially reacted by asking: “Why are you calling us about this? What do you expect us to do?” The officer apologized after learning about his position in the community, and took steps to look for the girl, who was ultimately found safe. However, the leader was left concerned about how others without his standing in the community were treated.

This concern was echoed by others. According to a community provider of services to domestic violence survivors, the reaction of the police to missing person reports depends on the officer and whether the missing person is a repeat criminal offender or known to the criminal justice system.[172] The community service provider told Human Rights Watch about reporting a woman missing in 2011 who had previous contact with the criminal justice system:

We reported a young aboriginal woman missing this past fall and it took three weeks before they even started to look for her. The police officer called and asked questions about her after three weeks. There was no explanation of why he’d taken that long. But all of a sudden he needed this and this. I thought: “Why am I doing your job for you?”[173]

RCMP policy states that people reporting a missing person should never be told they must wait a certain amount of time.[174] However, Rose L. told Human Rights Watch that in 2010 her sister’s 16-year-old granddaughter (whom she considered and referred to as her granddaughter) went missing.[175] “She had a drug problem and was on probation. I called [the police] to find out where she was after she was missing for 14 hours and the police wouldn’t do anything because it was too early.” She later found out that her granddaughter had been in jail, having been arrested for allegedly beating up a man who witnesses said had attempted to sexually assault her.

For families whose loved ones have gone missing or been murdered, detailed information about the investigation’s developments is critical. For the police, updating the families is important for maintaining their trust and cooperation. At the same time, releasing certain details could jeopardize the investigation. Human Rights Watch’s interviews suggest that the RCMP still needs to find the right balance.[176] “One of the things they need to do is to explain what the investigative process is rather than just saying ‘We’re investigating,’” said one family member. “We need to be told point by point. Otherwise we don’t understand and just feel like nothing is happening.”[177]

Police Response to Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault

Domestic violence survivors and community organizations in northern British Columbia reported to Human Rights Watch that calls to the police by indigenous women and girls seeking help with violence are frequently met with skepticism and victim-blaming questions and comments, and that police often arrest victims of abuse for actions taken in self-defense. While these problems occur in many communities, service providers emphasized that indigenous women and girls are especially likely to be treated as blame-worthy by police.[178] This treatment was evident in the response of the police to Lena G.’s call regarding the dispute between her 15-year-old daughter and her abusive adult boyfriend, discussed above, which resulted in the police handcuffing and breaking her daughter’s arm.[179]

The RCMP Operations Manual instructs officers responding to Violence in Relationships (VIR) calls to identify the primary aggressor and states that dual arrests should be rare.[180] In determining who the primary aggressor was, officers are supposed to consider the history of the relationship, among other factors, and to keep in mind that “An allegation of mutual aggression is often raised by the Primary Aggressor as a defense with respect to an assault against a partner.”[181] Human Rights Watch learned of several incidents indicating that police fail to implement this instruction consistently. One service provider told Human Rights Watch that she had seen a number of indigenous women charged as first-time offenders because they defended themselves in the context of domestic abuse, including a woman who had recently been arrested after police found bite marks on her abuser’s arm that she had left in attempt to free herself from a chokehold.[182] Service providers in different communities in the north said that police in general tend to side with the person who calls the police, and that abusers will manipulate that to their advantage.[183] “The man’s the first one to the phone and she’s arrested even when there is physical evidence of abuse,” said one provider.

Several service providers told Human Rights Watch that RCMP officers responded dismissively to calls from indigenous women out of apparent frustration with seeing women remain in violent relationships.[184] They complained that the abuse was taken less seriously when the police had responded repeatedly to a particular household, and that officers lacked an appreciation for the financial and other barriers that make it difficult for women to leave abusive men.

When women reporting violence have been using alcohol or drugs, getting the police to take their complaints seriously can be even more difficult. “Police still have the attitude: ‘All he did was punch her,’ and with Aboriginal women: ‘Were you drinking? Using?’” said one community service provider.[185] Amy N. told Human Rights Watch that she had called the police for help with an abusive partner on two separate occasions in different towns during the years that she was in active addiction. She said both times the police were more interested in the drugs than the abuse.[186] On the second occasion in 2006, a police officer told her, “You’re pretty much asking for it when you’re high on that stuff.” Amy N. concluded that “They’re always going to ask if you’re under the influence and once that information was available, I was treated much differently.”[187] Dina A., from another town, was injured in an automobile accident deliberately caused by her cousin’s boyfriend. When she went to the police to complain about her cousin’s boyfriend’s actions, the police dismissed her on the basis that she had been drinking prior to the incident:

[My sister and I] got into my cousin’s vehicle [which she was driving] – she was begging me to go for a ride. My cousin’s boyfriend was there and he said to her, “Hey, you know how we were talking about suicide? Why don’t we do it now with these two bitches in the car?” I buckled my sister’s seatbelt in fast... He reached over and grabbed the wheel and turned us into the ditch… [After the crash,] my sister dragged me out of the vehicle. We went to the house of people we know and called a cab and went to the hospital. I was in and out of consciousness for 4 to 5 hours. I had a head injury – 24 stitches on the side of the head. I lost so much blood. They had to give me two and a half pints of blood...
The next day I went to the police to report in the morning. There were three cops standing there. I said I’m here to give my report about the accident I was in last night because when [the police] came to the hospital they only asked about who was driving and whose vehicle it was. The police officer was just like, “You guys were intoxicated.” They didn’t even want to listen to me. [188]

Indigenous women and girls who survive sexual assault may face similar challenges to accessing effective protection from sexual violence. An elected official in the north said that in his location there is a general sense that cases of sexual abuse are a low priority for the RCMP detachment and that he has heard from community members on a nearby reservation that there is not a seriousness or timeliness to investigations into sexual abuse. He said that it may be a workload issue, and that cases could be de-prioritized because they take a lot of time to investigate and then may be dropped if the victim decides not to pursue it further.[189] According to victim advocates, the low priority placed on these cases acts as a disincentive to reporting for women, who believe their cases will not be taken seriously.[190]

When investigations do occur, victim-blaming by police officers is a problem. One service provider told Human Rights Watch:

I had a woman about two years ago who decided to report to the RCMP – very rare. I have worked with many women sexually assaulted and only a handful go forward with charges. She was made to feel that she was to blame. “Why had you been drinking with him?” I had to work triple time to work through her natural feelings of guilt… You have a system of authority that puts the blame on the victim.[191]

Cara D., a 17-year-old victim of attempted rape in 2012, reported the crime to the police and became the subject of scrutiny. After an initial visit by a female officer who took pictures of bruises on her leg and arm, Cara received a succession of visits from male officers questioning her story:

The cops came to the house to talk about it at all hours… earlier than 6 a.m.... Different cops, same questions. They were all male and you could tell they didn’t believe me. They acted like they wanted to leave. “Are you lying to us?” They basically said I might have to do a lie detector test, but it didn’t happen. They took [the perpetrator] in for questioning and he refused to make a statement. They let him go. There was a two-month investigation and they dropped all the charges. The guy had charges of sexual assault before but it was still not enough for them to not drop the charges… What was I supposed to do – let him rape me so you would have evidence?[192]

The man who attacked Cara was originally charged with attempted rape but the charges were later dropped and temporary restrictions which had been imposed on his movements were lifted. However no one told Cara. “I found out that he got off because I saw him out,” she said.

Anna T. was a prominent member of her community before the abuse by her white ex-husband climaxed in a rage one night in 2009. She told Human Rights Watch about her near escape and the police failure to gather key evidence:

We were walking home from the bar and we walked past my street. I got this bad feeling. I said to my friend, “Something’s wrong. I need to go to my house.” I got to the door and opened the lock. My ex was high on crack. “What are you doing? Where are the kids?” I asked. I had found him and a friend in the smoke room. Crack was on the table. I kicked out the friend. Me and my husband went upstairs and got into an argument about why he had disappeared for a week. He grabbed me by the neck and threw me up against a wall. He said: “The only reason I was gone for a week is because I wanted to kill you and the kids.” He was choking me and I was slapping him. He dragged me by my hair toward the bedroom. We were weapons collectors. We had bows and swords all around the house. He grabbed a weapon and said, “You’re not going to get out of this room. You’re going to die tonight.” He stumbled and I was able to get away. I was running down the street and he was chasing me all the way to my neighbor’s house. There we called police. They said to stay inside. I said I was worried about the kids. “I’m afraid he’s going to kill the kids because he’s going back to the house,” I said. Six cop cars came because of his criminal record. When cops got into the house they found that the kids were okay. Cops took him away and tried to charge him with assault…

Six to eight months later the charges against Anna’s ex-husband had to be reduced because there was insufficient evidence of the attempt on her life. Anna faults the police for the reduced charge because they never interviewed the neighbor who helped her escape that night. With the reduced charge, her ex-husband’s only punishment was a year probation. The limited accountability he faced for the attempt on her life has had ongoing implications. In coping with the trauma of the assault and seeing him set free, Anna turned to drugs and alcohol. Her substance use was a factor in her ex-husband getting primary custody of their daughter. He continues to behave violently, including choking a 14-year-old daughter from another marriage.

[168] Human Rights Watch interview with community service provider (#13), British Columbia, July 2012.

[169] Human Rights Watch interview with Penelope N., British Columbia, July 2012.

[170] Linda Locke, QC, Missing Women Commission of Inquiry, “Standing Together and Moving Forward: Report on the Pre-Hearing Conference in Prince George and the Northern Community Forums,” p. 8.

[171] Human Rights Watch interview with community leader, British Columbia, July 2012.

[172] Human Rights Watch interview with community service provider (#16), British Columbia, July 2012.

[173] Ibid.

[174] RCMP “E” Division Operational Manual, Chapter 37.3. Missing Persons, sec. 1.4: “Under no circumstances will a complainant be advised that he or she must wait a specific period of time before a report of a missing person can be made” (no emphasis added); the manual further reiterates that a missing person investigation must involve “a diligent early response” (sec. 37.3.1.2.1.), “the early and efficient gathering of witness accounts/leads/information/facts” (sec. 37.3.1.2.2.”), and “no delays in collecting required information/facts” (sec. 37.3.1.2.3.). Missing children are considered high risk (sec. 37.3.1.3.1.) and high risk missing persons cases should “especially” be given prompt and thorough attention (sec. 37.3.1.3.).

[175] Human Rights Watch interview with Rose L., British Columbia, July 2012.

[176] Human Rights Watch interviews with Peter M., British Columbia, July 2012, and Patrice L., British Columbia, July 2012.

[177] Human Rights Watch interview with Patrice L., British Columbia, July 2012.

[178] Human Rights Watch interview with community service provider (#1), British Columbia, July 2012.

[179] Human Rights Watch interview with Emily G. and Lena G., British Columbia, July 2012.

[180] RCMP “E” Division Operational Manual, Chapter 2.4. Violence in Relationships, sec. 6.1.

[181] Ibid, sec. 5.3.

[182] Human Rights Watch interview with community service provider (#11), British Columbia, July 2012.

[183] Human Rights Watch interviews with community service provider (#2), British Columbia, July 2012, community service provider (#8), British Columbia, July 2012, and community service provider (#11), British Columbia, July 2012.

[184] Human Rights Watch interview with community service provider (#1), British Columbia, July 2012, and community service provider (#2), British Columbia, July 2012.

[185] Human Rights Watch interview with community service provider (#16), British Columbia, July 2012.

[186] Human Rights Watch interview with Amy N., British Columbia, July 2012.

[187] Ibid.

[188] Human Rights Watch interview with Dina A., British Columbia, July 2012.

[189] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Bob Simpson, Independent Member of the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia (MLA) for Cariboo North, July 2012.

[190] Human Rights Watch interview with community service provider (#2), British Columbia, July 2012.

[191] Human Rights Watch interview with community service provider (#4), British Columbia, July 2012.

[192] Human Rights Watch interview with Cara D. and Lisa E., British Columbia, July 2012.