Canada

Advocates want changes to police investigating police gender-based violence accusations

Professors Danielle McNabb, left, and Kate Puddister analysed close to 700 sexual assault allegations made to Ontario’s Special Investigations Unit between 2005 and 2020. (Submitted by Kate Puddister)

Advocates for victims of gender-based violence are calling for major changes to the way police services across Ontario deal with and investigate cases where the alleged perpetrator is a police officer.

A recent CBC News investigation found that more than one-third of police officers across 44 forces who have been suspended with pay since 2013 were accused of sexual assault, domestic violence or disciplinary violations of sexual harassment on the job. 

When a crime is allegedly committed by police, getting justice can get complicated, even risky for some, according to several survivors and former police officers who spoke with CBC.

In multiple cases reviewed by CBC, the victims — girlfriends, wives and colleagues of officers — were themselves serving in law enforcement.

An insidious culture within police forces known as the “blue wall of silence” can tilt internal investigations and disciplinary actions in favour of perpetrators seen as one of their own, those with lived experience told CBC. 

“I think that this conversation around reform has been happening for decades and this idea of the police policing the police is hugely problematic,” said Lesley Bikos, a former constable who now teaches sociology at King’s University College in London, Ont.

“If you have the police still doing internal investigations and it’s the police chief deciding what’s happening, then you’re still keeping all of that process internal.”

Observers point to internal, systemic problems that could take a variety of solutions, including hiring more women to counter the gender imbalance within law enforcement, transferring more police oversight to an independent agency, and reallocating funds to community-based services. 

21% of police officers are women

According to Statistics Canada, approximately 79 per cent of Ontario police officers in 2023 were men and 21 per cent were women.

In conversations with CBC, both male and female officers referred to the current policing culture as an “old boy’s club.” 

Male officers make up an overwhelming majority of cops suspended with pay for alleged sexual assault, harassment and intimate partner violence, according to CBC’s database.

In its analysis of a decade of news releases, media stories, police reports and disciplinary hearings, CBC was able to identify only three cases where the alleged perpetrator was a woman.

Police insiders interviewed by CBC say one of the most important steps toward transforming Ontario’s policing culture is attracting more women to the service. 

Mark Baxter, president of the Police Association of Ontario, said his organization representing sworn officers across 45 unions supports everyone.

New legislation that came into force April 1 will help modernize Ontario police services and make them safer, he said. 

“There’s an entire regulation on whistleblowing [which] I believe will make it easier for folks to come forward, particularly women, when they’re faced with these types of situations.” Baxter said

“We need safe inclusive workplaces for everyone, women included,” he added.

A man in a suit on a video call.
Mark Baxter, president of the Police Association of Ontario, says police services require safe inclusive workplaces for everyone, including women. (Jason Viau/CBC)

Critics say balancing the gender makeup of police forces should remain a priority.

“Simply changing some rules or simply changing some internal policies on paper, that is not on its own enough to transform an entire policing culture,” said Danielle McNabb, an assistant professor who researches Canadian public law at Brock University.

“I think that reaching a critical mass of women in policing organizations might be an important step.”

Expanding SIU responsibilities

Former Waterloo Regional police officer Kelly Donovan is a vocal critic of the way police forces in Canada handle internal investigations and suggests Ontario’s Special Investigations Unit (SIU) should look into all criminal investigations against officers.

The SIU — a civilian oversight agency — is mandated to investigate incidents involving police that lead to injury, death, the discharge of a firearm at a person or an allegation of sexual assault.

It does not, however, look into officers accused of domestic violence.

“I’m not saying the SIU is perfect, but it’s much better than having it done internally and I think everybody would agree on that,” said Donovan.

“We have to add to the SIU’s mandate and maybe we hire some extra investigators. But it also means that police services don’t need these massive internal affairs divisions like they have now.”

A woman outside in spring.
Kelly Donovan, a former police constable, now researches, writes and makes recommendations about how police forces in Canada could better handle internal investigations. (Bobby Hristova/CBC )

A member of the public can report an officer-involved allegation of sexual assault directly to the SIU

But a 2022 study into SIU sexual assault investigations found only 1.59 per cent of complaints resulted in a conviction and sentence.

Sexual assault case review

In that study, Brock’s McNabb and University of Guelph associate professor Kate Puddister noted the challenges of investigating and prosecuting sexual assault is exacerbated when the alleged perpetrator is a police officer.

They analyzed nearly 700 sexual assault allegations made to the SIU between 2005 and 2020.

“We found that sexual assault is actually the second most common offence for which officers are both charged and prosecuted,” said McNabb.

“This really constitutes the tip of the iceberg, because what we know from our own research demonstrates that reports of police-involved sexual assault are frequently deemed to be unfounded.”

Because the SIU doesn’t look into allegations of intimate-partner violence, those claims are left to the municipal and provincial police forces to investigate internally.

This shouldn’t be a problem according to the executive director of the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police. 

Jeff McGuire, who previously served as chief in the Niagara region, said it’s possible to request the help of a neighbouring police force to avoid conflict of interest.  

“[If] the chief felt that a fair and impartial investigation couldn’t be conducted by his own people … They would reach out to a colleague and say ‘Hey, I need your professional standards people to come and assist,'” said McGuire.

WATCH | Investigating allegations of gender-based violence against police:

1 in 3 Ontario police suspensions involved gender-based violence allegations

A CBC News investigation shows over one-third of Ontario police officers suspended over the past decade faced allegations of gender-based violence, including sexual assault, domestic abuse and harassment. Of those convicted, about a third returned to work.

Other Canadian jurisdictions

Civilian oversight bodies do investigate incidents of domestic violence in other provinces such as Newfoundland and Labrador, Nova Scotia and Saskatchewan.

“Clearly some other jurisdictions have made this determination that, like sexual violence, intimate-partner violence requires this independent investigation,” said Puddister, who focuses her research on criminal justice policy.

Ontario’s SIU would require more money to take on these expanded responsibilities, she said, but such an expansion would make sense.

CBC asked the SIU if the agency would consider taking on domestic investigations, but in an email, spokesperson Monica Hudon said the SIU “does not weigh in on matters of policy. To do so could undermine our standing as an impartial investigative office.” 

A teacher outside in spring or summer.
Lesley Bikos is a former constable with the London Police Service who now teaches sociology at King’s University College in London, Ont. (Submitted by Lesley Bikos)

In her research, King’s University College assistant professor Bikos has surveyed hundreds of officers across the country who point to systemic failures and a policing culture damaged beyond repair.

“Take money from the police and put it into community-led services,” said Bikos.

“That’s the answer, right? Not more money to the police and a system that many folks don’t have faith in.”

Officers who were victims, as well those who were accused, tell CBC it’s a major conflict when police investigate colleagues. 

Bikos was recently among the voices calling for the City of London to reconsider budget increases to its force. At the same time, she said, agencies that deal with gender-based violence are in need of money. 

It’s time for rebalancing, she said. 

This idea of the police policing the police is hugely problematic.– Lesley Bikos, assistant sociology professor

With very low reporting and conviction rates for sexual assault in general, Bikos noted reporting to police is not necessarily a viable option for survivors.

She said a better option would be prevention programs and community resources for victims.

“Sexual abuse violence is pervasive in society. It’s also pervasive within policing, and so those resources that are asked for, they need to be given into these organizations,” said Bikos. 

Since CBC initially published its Paid to stay home series in April, six more recent suspensions with pay involving gender-based violence related charges have come to CBC’s attention.

In one case, an OPP inspector will be back in court in June, facing seven of these charges. No public announcement detailing his arrest was ever released to the media.

“You can’t have accountability without transparency. The public can’t have confidence in the accountability system if they don’t know about it,” said Puddister.

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