Ottawa police officers could improve their response to crimes of violence against women with more charges and less victim blaming, a University of Ottawa report recommended after surveying women who had reported partner abuse or sexual assault.

The study comes after Ottawa Police Chief Charles Bordeleau asked for input on how to improve the force's response to violence against women in January 2014.

The University of Ottawa study asked 219 women who had reported violence to Ottawa police to complete a detailed questionnaire on topics including intimate partner violence, sexual assault and other types of violence including harassment, threats and physical abuse.

"We had many women saying that the police blamed them, held them responsible for it, didn't take it seriously at all, didn't follow up, didn't respond or enforce a violation of a court order," Holly Johnson, an associate professor who authored the study, said on CBC Radio's All In A Day.

'We had many women saying that the police blamed them, held them responsible for it, didn't take it seriously at all.' - Holly Johnson, study author

The questionnaire found that 44 per cent of women felt the first officer she spoke to believed her report of sexual assault while 64 per cent felt the officer believed her report of partner assault.

Only 37 per cent of women who reported sexual assault and 57 per cent of women who reported partner assault found that the officer was considerate of her feelings and opinions, the study found.

Charges were laid in 19 per cent of sexual assault cases and 54 per cent of partner assault cases, the study participants said.

Listen to the full interview below.

Why do women report?

The most recent Statistics Canada victimization study, conducted in 2009, suggests that only 30 per cent of women assaulted by an intimate partners and fewer than 10 per cent who are sexually assaulted report the crimes to police.

The study found that the reason women report partner assault or sexual assault to police is complicated  — and that arrest is a motivation in less than 25 per cent of cases.

Still, 20 per cent of the women who reported a partner assault and 25 per cent of women who were assaulted said they were encouraged or pressured to involve police — and in some cases, others made the decision for them, the study detailed.

"Reluctance stemmed from fear and shame and concerns about how they would be treated by the police, and concerns from (partner assault) victims about supporting themselves independently of a violent partner, and about possibly making the situation worse," the report detailed.

One woman surveyed said she felt like a suspect. "I was told I would be charged if I was found to be lying. He asked me why I didn't scream or fight more, and didn't seem to believe me."

Other women reported positive experiences, including one who said, "The officer sat and gently talked to me about abuse and let me know this wasn't normal and that I didn't have to live like that, and thanks to him, I have changed my life." 

5 recommendations

The study made five main recommendations to Ottawa police based on its finding:

  • "Continuously monitor decisions to discontinue complaints as unfounded and to not refer cases to investigators."
  • "Provide information on the progress of the case to each complainant with a clear explanation of why a suspect will not be charge or an investigation discontinued."
  • "Implement ongoing training in collaboration with community groups who provide services to abused women" to help frontline workers and investigators provide the most compassionate and nonjudgemental response.
  • "Make victim safety a priority," including linking victims to support groups, charging perpetrators and taking breaches of court orders seriously.
  • "Continuously review operations, policies and practices" in collaborations with Ottawa victim-serving agencies to improve any areas needed.

Read the full report here.