New strangulation law targets domestic violence, with more than 200 charges laid in Waterloo area

More than 200 strangulation-related charges have been laid in Waterloo region since the assault became a separate offence under the Criminal Code two years ago. 

2019 Criminal Code amendment adds strangulation as separate offence

Police recommend anyone experiencing a domestic violence crisis and/or is in danger, call 911. (Sunghwan Yoon/Flickr)

More than 200 strangulation-related charges have been laid in Waterloo region since it became a separate offence under the Criminal Code two years ago. 

The Waterloo Regional Police Service (WRPS) said so far this year, it has laid 120 charges, 10 of which were laid in November. Even with two months left in 2021, this year saw more cases than the previous when a total of 103 charges were laid. 

There may be several factors contributing to the rise in numbers, says Staff Sgt. Jamie Brosseau, who's in charge of the regional police's intimate partner violence unit.

"Could it be an increase in that type of crime in the community? Yes, it could be. Could it be that we are better at detecting, investigating and, as a result, obviously laying charges and prosecuting those types of criminal offences? That could be an element as well," said Brosseau.

"I think there's probably pieces of both in there," he added.

While these assaults are rising in the region, the amendment to the law is helping raise awareness of domestic violence and holding offenders accountable, experts say. 

Increased awareness

In 2019, Criminal Code Section 267, which addresses assault with a weapon or causing bodily harm, was amended to include an additional offence that factors in choking, suffocation or strangulation. If convicted, an offender could face imprisonment of up to 10 years.

Criminal Code Section 272, which addresses sexual assault, also had a subsection added, factoring in a similar offence related to strangulation. 

"I think a number of organizations [including] police services across Canada, domestic violence advocates, domestic violence services within the hospitals, all were seeing this as an emerging issue," said Peter Jaffe, director emeritus at the Ontario-based Centre of Research and Education on Violence Against Women and Children.

Jaffe, who is also a member of Ontario's Domestic Violence Death Review Committee, said one of the reasons why strangulation was singled out as a separate offence is because it's associated with the risk of future strangulation — and an increased risk of domestic homicide.

"Recognizing the strangulation in law leads to changes in terms of education of police, education of health-care professionals who may see these victims in the emergency room ... so it raises awareness that the issue is important enough to be taken seriously. [It's] an important step forward."

In November of 2019, several WRPS officers were trained on how to identify, investigate and prosecute domestic violence cases where women were strangled by their partners. Since then, many officers have taken part in additional training. 

This fall, four officers completed an advanced course related to investigating and prosecuting the offence.

Meanwhile, Brosseau said the new law helps hold offenders accountable through the justice system. 

"Anytime you have something new in the Criminal Code, you are creating an avenue of investigation, prosecution and ultimately at the end of that, jurisprudence. And so we're trying to build a professional method of investigation when it comes to these offences, hoping that obviously offenders will be held accountable."

More cases and convictions

An increased number of strangulation-related charges are making it to court in Ontario, an assistant crown attorney in Waterloo said.

And more charges typically lead to more convictions, said Armin Sethi.

"There is an increased awareness of something that is happening and something you have to look for," she said. "There is an increased level of understanding of the charge that may fit what happened in that case."

Sethi said it's an issue that was always taken seriously, but now it's further highlighted in the criminal justice system.

"I think that, from my perspective, it sends a clear message to the community that we're going to be taking this more seriously in terms of a denunciatory and deterrent effect."

Safety first

Jennifer Hutton finds the law change and subsequent increased awareness encouraging, as CEO of Women's Crisis Services of Waterloo Region. Especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"We know just how dangerous strangulation can be — not only can it increase the risk of homicide, it can also increase the risk of other conditions such as traumatic brain injury," said Hutton, noting that staff at her organization have been trained to recognize signs of traumatic brain injury.

"During the pandemic we have seen instances of escalated violence. That's why there needs to be increased awareness and understanding of the risks, so that women can get the help they need." she added.

Meanwhile, in light of Women Abuse Prevention Month, Staff Sgt. Brosseau said he hopes local data around domestic violence will encourage people to seek help. 

"We know that a significant percentage of the victims of intimate partner violence do not come forward to police," he said. "By releasing information in the community on a very serious and risky criminal offence, we want to make sure that victims understand that strangulation can be a life-threatening event and encourage them to seek help and resources."

Anyone experiencing a domestic violence crisis and/or is in danger, call 911.

For non-urgent situations, you can contact regional police at the non-emergency number (519) 570-9777.

Women's Crisis Services of Waterloo Region is available at (519) 742-5894 in Kitchener-Waterloo and (519) 653-2422 in Cambridge. Women in rural areas can connect by calling either number.

The Waterloo Region Sexual Assault Domestic Violence Treatment Centre is available at (519) 749-6994. People can also go to the emergency department of St. Mary's General Hospital or Cambridge Memorial Hospital.