The devil is in the details

Stories about domestic violence in the media, particularly at the early stages of the case, often appear almost antiseptic in their lack of concrete information about what has happened. Often, the lack of information is because the police have not released any details, so journalists don’t have a lot to work with.

The police in Kingston, Ontario, are trying to change that, with the hope it will mean the public gains a greater awareness and understanding about intimate partner abuse. Now, when the police issue a media release about a domestic violence call, it contains what they call “precise details” about what was done to the victim. Kingston Police Force media relations officer Constable Cameron Mack notes:

“We want to give enough information to really catch people’s interest, to really make them think, to make them aware.”

Calls increase

Implemented in 2012, the strategy has resulted in an increased number of domestic violence calls. The police say this is because members of the public are better able to spot the warning signs of domestic violence as a result of the more detailed reporting.

Marlene Ham, of the Ontario Association of Interval and Transition Houses (OAITH) and Mavis Morton, a professor at the University of Guelph who has conducted research into domestic violence, including homicide, are encouraged to see police releasing information about an abuser’s previous domestic violence history with his victim, particularly because those histories are often left unexplored when the media cover domestic homicides.

Certainly, finding ways to bring family violence out of the private realm where it is usually relegated and into the public is a good thing. Especially in cases that end with a homicide, it is important for the public to understand the history that has come before so the homicide is not seen as a random and inexplicable act.

There is a downside

Most of those increased calls in Kingston are coming not from victims themselves but from third parties: family members, neighbours, bystanders. This can be problematic, because women often have very good reasons for not wanting to report what has happened to the police. These include fear of retribution by the abusive partner or his friends or family; financial concerns for the family if the abuser goes to jail and fear about involvement by child protection authorities. In some cases, the woman has a criminal history of her own and, for this reason, does not want the police involved.

Because police operate under what is known as a “mandatory charging directive,” once they have received information about a domestic violence incident, they make the decision about whether or not to lay charges. The wishes of the victim play a very small role, which leaves her in an ongoing position of not having control over what happens in her life.

In other words, even if a direct line can be drawn from the more detailed reports provided by the police to the increase in calls reporting domestic violence, this is not necessarily a good thing for the women who are subjected to that violence. It could even jeopardize their safety further.

Domestic abuse is more than physical

Another concern about this approach is its inevitable focus on physical violence to the exclusion of other equally serious forms of abuse. No charges can be laid in most situations involving psychological abuse, because this behaviour is not governed by the Criminal Code, so these are not cases the police report.

When this new approach was first implemented by Kingston police six years ago, then-Constable Steve Koopman noted some concerns about the possible impact on victims:

“Can we discuss it while still being sensitive to the nature of it, trying not to get into too much detail where we’re identifying the victim or making them feel any more vulnerable?”

Even where the police reports do not identify either the accused or victim by name, women can see themselves in the stories, which can make them feel exposed and embarrassed at a time when they may not be especially concerned about the fact that the story is intended to educate the public.

Yes or no?

There is no simple yes or no response to the Kingston Police initiative. The goal of raising public awareness about violence against women is a good thing. Providing the public and potential victims with information about community supports – every domestic violence media release ends with a list of local services—is important.

But is there a way to do this that does not result in third-party calls to the police in cases when the woman does not want the police involved, that does not make women feel more vulnerable  and that does not focus just on physical violence?

One thought on “The devil is in the details

  1. In Toronto and Peel, I am particularly concerned when early police reports say “there is no concern for public safety” after a domestic homicide. The family, new partner and friends, not to mention neighbours or bystanders who may intervene, are all at risk. This type of framing leaves dv cases in the private realm.

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