Kitchener-Waterloo

Sexual violence task force members concerned with Chief Larkin's statement

The response by Waterloo Regional Police to a class action lawsuit in which current and former female officers have detailed sexual harassment and discrimination is concerning, members of the region's sexual violence task force say.

‘Messages such as these can have far-reaching, negative impacts on women and girls’

Members of the sexual violence task force say the response by Waterloo Regional Police to a class action lawsuit in which current and former female officers have detailed sexual harassment and discrimination is concerning. (Colin Butler/CBC )

The response by Waterloo Regional Police to a $167-million class action lawsuit in which current and former female officers have detailed sexual harassment and discrimination is concerning, members of the region's sexual violence task force say.

The police association's lawyer and Chief Bryan Larkin have both provided written statements to the media about the case. Both statements defended the force.

Five members of the task force released an open letter Thursday saying they are "very concerned" about the police force's response to the allegations in affidavits filed as part of the class action lawsuit.

Lyndsey Butcher is a member of the task force and is also executive director of SHORE Centre and co-chair of the Sex Workers Action Network.

She said the task force is "troubled" by remarks made by the lawyer for Waterloo Regional Police Service as well as comments made by Chief Larkin earlier this week.

"We felt especially the need to come forward now just because of all the recent media reports and the comments that have been made, especially by [James] Bennett, the lawyer representing the Waterloo Regional Police Service in this class action lawsuit. His comments were especially troubling," Butcher said in an interview on CBC K-W's The Morning Edition Friday.

"Put yourself in the shoes of someone who has been recently assaulted and is considering coming forward to the police to have the charges investigated — those comments by Mr. Bennett would give them pause about whether or not reporting to police was something they wanted to do."

The letter was signed by Butcher, Sara Casselman, executive director of the Sexual Assault Support Centre of Waterloo Region; Elizabeth Clarke, CEO of the YWCA Kitchener-Waterloo; Kim Decker, executive director of the YWCA Cambridge; and Judah Oudshoorn a volunteer with the Male Allies program of the Sexual Assault Support Centre of Waterloo Region.

Listen to the interview with Lyndsey Butcher on The Morning Edition:

Task force investigating unfounded cases

The sexual violence task force was created by the police force to address the high number of "unfounded" cases of sexual assaults in the region.

A sexual assault is classified by police as "unfounded" if it's believed a crime never occurred and was not attempted. A report by the Globe and Mail in early 2017 found between 2010 and 2014, the Canadian national unfounded average for all police services was 19%.

Waterloo Region's rate was 27%.

The report caused forces across the country to look back at cases and also reflect on how they treat victims and their allegations.

Unrelated to the unfounded cases, Waterloo Regional Police is also facing a $167 million class action lawsuit. It's on behalf of all female officers unless they opt out.

In defending the force, Larkin wrote that the service has made "great strides toward improving gender equity and providing a workplace that is free from harassment."

Larkin also noted all allegations in the affidavits, where appropriate, have been referred to the province's Special Investigations Unit.

A spokesperson for the SIU told CBC News "since Nov. 1, 2017, the SIU has been made aware by the police service of four sexual assault allegations involving the Waterloo Regional Police Service." It was not clear which ones, if any, were a direct result of the class action lawsuit.

'Unfair' to let affidavits go unchallenged

In a separate statement to the media, the police service's board lawyer James Bennett, of the Kitchener firm Madorin, Snyder LLP, said "it would be unfair and wrong to let the affidavits filed by the plaintiffs that we believe contain untrue, exaggerated, misleading and/or defamatory allegations against past, current and deceased members which we vehemently deny, be left unchallenged."

"The affiants are now going to be cross-examined under oath within the next 30 days and their false, exaggerated and misleading allegations will be challenged and exposed at that time," Bennett's statement said.

"The transcripts of their cross-examinations will then be filed in the court proceedings, and it is hoped that the media will then properly report on the actual evidence rather than the misleading and at present unchallenged allegations."

He added, "We continue to vigorously oppose the jurisdiction of the class action lawsuit."

Lyndsey Butcher is a member of the region's sexual violence task force and is also executive director of SHORE Centre and co-chair of the Sex Workers Action Network. (Jackie Sharkey/CBC)

No reason not to take allegations seriously

Butcher said those who signed the open letter question why the force won't believe its own members.

"These are female police officers with years of service in the police force in our community and the fact that the police service would come out so vehemently calling these allegations false and misleading," she said.

"They won't even believe their own members of the force. What hope does a woman in our community, especially a marginalized woman like a sex worker, have in coming forward to the police?"

While it is a police officer's job to be sceptical, she said more needs to be done for victims who come forward.

"I don't see a reason why these reports aren't being taken seriously and aren't being addressed," she said, noting a different approach within the RCMP when a similar case was settled by the national police force.

Not addressing the concerns in the class action lawsuit "really does damage the credibility of the police force in the eyes of survivors of sexual violence," she said. 

"As a community, we need to step up and say we do believe survivors when they come forward."

Responses 'diminished' task force's work

The open letter from members of the task force said the responses by Larkin and Bennett "diminished" the work of the task force, "indicating a lack of understanding or acknowledgement, or maybe even a rejection, of a connection between gendered disparities/harms in policing and how effectively police respond to survivors of sexual violence."

It added, "Messages such as these can have far-reaching, negative impacts on women and girls, particularly survivors of gender-based discrimination, sexual harassment, and sexual violence. As you know, survivors already struggle to come forward, to be believed, to find safe spaces for healing and justice."

The letter said "acknowledging gender bias is fundamental to improving police culture and creating better outcomes for survivors who choose to report to police."

The letter goes on to say they want to continue the "critically important work" of the task force. Together with Larkin, they are "committed to improving police responses to survivors of sexual violence and to ending gender-based violence in all its forms."


Read the full letter

This is the letter written by members of the Sexual Violence Task Force to Waterloo Regional Police Chief Bryan Larkin.

An Open Letter to Chief Bryan Larkin

Jan. 18, 2018

Dear Chief Larkin,

We write to you with respect, kindness, and concern.

We are deeply troubled by how the Waterloo Regional Police Service (WRPS) has chosen to publicly respond to the recent class action lawsuit against the service.

When the lawyer retained by the WRPS went out of his way to challenge allegations outside of court, we became very concerned about how his message, on behalf of the WRPS, would be understood by our community. Then, when you felt compelled to defend your staff in the media and cited progress on gender equity, without naming gender disparity as a very real issue within policing, our worries increased.

Messages such as these can have far-reaching, negative impacts on women and girls, particularly survivors of gender-based discrimination, sexual harassment, and sexual violence. As you know, survivors already struggle to come forward, to be believed, to find safe spaces for healing and justice.

These responses diminished the work of the Sexual Violence Task Force (SVTF), indicating a lack of understanding or acknowledgement, or maybe even a rejection, of a connection between gendered disparities/harms in policing and how effectively police respond to survivors of sexual violence.

We want to be clear: we believe survivors!

We want our community to understand that the important work of the SVTF cannot be separated from the work of creating gender equity/justice in policing, or the need for equitable, healthy relationships between all genders in Waterloo Region. Acknowledging gender bias is fundamental to improving police culture and creating better outcomes for survivors who choose to report to police.

Our hope would be to continue to move forward with the critically important work of the SVTF. Together with you, we are committed to improving police responses to survivors of sexual violence and to ending gender-based violence in all its forms.

We look forward to further dialogue.

Sincerely,

Lyndsey Butcher, Executive Director of SHORE Centre & Co-Chair of the Sex Workers Action Network

Sara Casselman, Executive Director, Sexual Assault Support Centre of Waterloo Region

Elizabeth Clarke, CEO, YW Kitchener-Waterloo

Kim Decker, Executive Director, YWCA Cambridge

Judah Oudshoorn, Volunteer, Male Allies program of the Sexual Assault Support Centre of Waterloo Region

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