It is December 6th as I write this. In the pandemic-imposed solitude of this day that I usually spend with colleagues, my mind has turned to two recent events that have shaken me deeply.
Almost two weeks ago, the Ontario Provincial Police responded to a “domestic call involving a firearm” at a home near Lindsay, Ontario. This soon turned into an apparent child abduction by a father of his one-year-old son, followed by a car chase. When it ended, after three officers had fired on the father and his vehicle, the baby was dead in the backseat of the father’s pick-up truck, the father was seriously injured from a gunshot wound and an OPP officer was injured, but not from gunfire. It later emerged that there was a gun in the father’s truck and that the baby died from a gunshot wound. An autopsy has been conducted on the baby, but no information has yet been released about who fired the bullet(s) that killed him. The father has since died of his injuries.
Late last week, RCMP in Nova Scotia arrested the former common-law partner of mass shooter Gabriel Wortman for, allegedly, buying bullets for the guns he may have used to kill 22 people last April. Let’s remember that this woman was, herself, a victim of Wortman, who had abused her for years and, before heading out that April night, had beaten her and tied her up. She managed to escape from him and spent hours hiding in the woods before she was able to make her way to a phone, whereupon she gave the RCMP important information about who they should be looking for and the kind of vehicle he was driving.
Who’s to blame?
Only about 25% of women who are subjected to intimate partner abuse report it to the police. There are many reasons for this. The abuse may not constitute a criminal offence because it is not physical or sexual. The woman may be afraid that calling the police will lead to increased abuse by her partner, worried that child protection authorities will become involved, concerned about how the police might treat her partner because he is racialized or Indigenous, fearful that her immigration status will be put into jeopardy or have had bad experiences with the police in the past.
One of the reasons women don’t have for not calling the police is that they don’t mind the abuse.
And, yet, women are often blamed when they don’t report. In family court proceedings, it is not uncommon for a woman to be told that her evidence of abuse would have been given greater weight had her former partner been criminally charged. Child protection authorities, child custody assessors and other professionals, neighbours, co-workers, even family members and friends, often downplay the seriousness of the abuse when it has not been reported to the police.
Police and criminal systems don’t seem to be held to the same standard of responsibility for ensuring that intimate partner abuse gets reported and that those reports are responded to appropriately.
They should be, as the two stories above tell us.
Why call the police?
Will we ever know for sure what took place on that foggy country road near Lindsay, given that the only living witnesses are the involved police officers? Will there be a meaningful investigation of the actions of the police when they responded to the initial call and then pursued the father? If fault is found to lie with individual officers, will they be held accountable? Will there be systemic change so such tragedies don’t happen again?
While there is a lot we don’t know about this story, there is one thing I know for sure: the next woman whose young child is abducted may well be less likely to call the police because of it.
The RCMP had heard for years about Wortman’s abuse of his partner, as well as his extensive gun collection and various other proclivities, but declined to do anything about any of them. Their handling of the shooting is now the subject of a public inquiry, but even getting that took a lot of work on the part of victims’ families and women’s advocates. On a national level, the RCMP has been found to have failed its own members who have been subjected to workplace sexual harassment and violence.
The RCMP is deservedly on the hot seat in this story. Could that be why, just two days before December 6th, the first charges laid in this nightmare were laid against the woman who was the first victim of Gabriel Wortman? Is this an attempt to distract attention away from RCMP culpability? An effort to blame the victim for never reporting her partner’s abuse as well as for, perhaps, buying bullets?
Almost as offensive as the actions of the RCMP are the comments of one of the lawyers for the families of the victims, who claims they are “relieved . . . this information has helped put their minds at east, to a point.” Really? Laying charges against a fellow victim is a relief? A woman who may have been so terrified of her partner that, not knowing his intentions, she bought him some bullets? A woman who, as soon as she knew Wortman’s plans, provided vital information to the RCMP that helped their pursuit of him? This puts people’s minds at ease?
Some people may wonder why women are not always keen to call the police about their abusive partners. I am not one of those people.