Saskatoon prowling victim describes 'traumatic' experience filing statement to police
Police service says it has identified 'roadblocks' to reporting in Danielle Altrogge Richardson's case
The Saskatoon Police Service (SPS) says it is looking into a complaint from a woman who says an officer at the city police station made her feel like "gum on a shoe" when she tried to give a statement about a prowler outside her bedroom window in 2017.
"I think that the way that I was treated by the intake officer was absolutely unacceptable and I don't think any of their staff should be treating members of the public who are coming in and asking for help like that," said Danielle Altrogge Richardson, who said experiences like her own are contributing to under-reporting of sexual assault in Canada.
In July 2017, Altrogge Richardson was awoken in the middle of the night by a knock at the door. SPS officers had been called to her house by a neighbour who reported seeing a man peering into her bedroom window with his hands in his pants.
Officer seemed to be dissuading report: Altrogge Richardson
Altrogge Richardson learned that the perpetrator was someone she had been friends with for more than five years. She also knew his wife and children.
He was handcuffed by police. Altrogge Richardson said she needed time to think about whether she should press charges.
"I was concerned for the perpetrator's wife and children," said Altrogge Richardson.
"I knew that if I pressed charges, it would impact his ability to work — his job required a vulnerable sector check — and he was the family's sole wage earner. I didn't want to believe that the situation had happened."
She said that when she went to the police station to file a statement four days later, a male police officer at the front desk became short with her when he was unable to find a record of the incident four days earlier.
"I felt like I was, like he was late for his lunch break and I was holding him up, I really felt like I was gum on the bottom of a shoe," said Altrogge Richardson.
She said the officer seemed to be trying to dissuade her from filing a statement and only agreed to do so when she became visibly upset in front of other members of the public.
"I cried a lot after that. I sat in the parking lot with my mom on the phone for a really long time just trying to like, be able to move, to leave."
The next day she was contacted by a female SPS officer who had heard about the incident from a mutual friend. That officer apologized and explained that she had created a file for Altrogge Richardson's case. The perpetrator was eventually charged with "prowl by night," a minor, non-sexual offence under the Criminal Code.
Altrogge Richardson said the experience took a toll.
"It was probably one of the most exhausting things I had done so far in my 28-year life and it definitely changed how I experienced the police in general," she said.
"It has impacted my perspective of if they are helpers or if they are harmers because, to be honest, reporting it was more traumatic than the incident itself."
Altrogge Richardson's experience 'unfortunate': SPS spokesperson
Alyson Edwards, public affairs director for the SPS, said the initial incident involving the prowler would have been recorded into a computer system linked to the dispatch system after the initial call. The system includes an area for remarks from the officers who attend the call, but it does not automatically generate a file for the incident.
Edwards said the officer Altrogge Richardson dealt with at the SPS front desk was probably looking for a file, which likely did not exist. But he could still have accessed information about her case by searching the dispatch system for the responding officers' remarks, which Edwards said he would have had access to.
"The process functions well the way it is set up. Unfortunately there wasn't some further steps taken at the point of contact that would have allowed for the report to be received by the SPS at that time," said Edwards.
"So that's something that we will have to follow up on to determine if it is human error or is it a training issue."
Edwards said it is unfortunate that Altrogge Richardson was unable to make a complaint immediately.
"That is not our intent. We want to make the process as accessible as possible to anyone who wishes to make a criminal complaint," she said.
"Certainly we've gone back and tried to assess what occurred when she initially wanted to do that and we've identified a couple of areas where there were some roadblocks."
She said she was not sure at the time of the interview if the officer still works at the station's front desk area.
Push for change
Altrogge Richardson said she has been diagnosed with PTSD and, until recently, was still experiencing symptoms.
"I have moved three times and have changed my last name," she said.
"The nightmares are no longer frequent and I am able to sleep in our home alone if my partner is out of town. I am still paranoid about making sure all of the blinds in my home are shut as soon as darkness breaks. I only occasionally have panic attacks now."
Altrogge Richardson said this month was the first time she felt strong enough to talk about the experience. She decided to make a formal complaint with the police service to try to elicit change.
She tried to contact SPS on a weekend earlier this month but found she was not able to reach anyone on the numbers listed on the website. The numbers she called had voicemail boxes that were full or cut off the call before she could leave a message. Finally she found an email address for the police service and sent in her complaint.
Among the numbers she tried to call was the line for the Saskatchewan Public Complaints Commission, a five-person non-police body appointed by the government. She said she was unable to reach a voicemail for the commission and the online form was not suitable for the complaint she wanted to make.
Considering impact to marginalized people
Altrogge Richardson said she wants to highlight the issues she experienced because she thinks they are a barrier to reporting of sexual assault — which a 2017 report from Statistics Canada described as "the most under-reported violent crime in Canada."
"I don't particularly enjoy reliving it or thinking about it too much, but if me bringing this forward could make it easier for someone to be able to report something that was never their fault to begin with, then this feels like the obvious choice," she said.
She said marginalized people living without support systems or stability may not be able to persist with reporting an incident — or making a complaint — if faced with a similar situation to her own.
Marie Lovrod, program chair of women's and gender studies at the University of Saskatchewan, agreed.
"Think about if somebody was Indigenous. Think about if somebody was a substance user, if somebody was trans … if somebody is a new immigrant who's also racialized, maybe English isn't their first language," said Lovrod.
"Can you imagine the barriers that get between the survivors like that and reporting and getting the services that they need?"
She said third-party reporting, where a person is able to make a statement online, would be preferable because it puts more control into the hands of the victim.
"So you're not necessarily depending on a police officer who may themselves have PTSD," said Lovrod.
That statement could be acted on, or held on record in case the perpetrator's name is flagged by a different officer.
Recent action plan includes recommendations for change
Lovrod said investing more in healing for survivors has to be a bigger priority across the system, noting a case from Alberta in which a victim services group is trying to protect its funds from being redirected to policing.
She said the recommendations of the Saskatchewan Sexual Violence Action Plan, released by Sexual Assault Services of Saskatchewan in 2019, provides a starting point for change.
The report says sexual violence files at police services should be reviewed to "determine the systemic challenges in investigating gender-based and sexual violence and to identify potential opportunities to improve investigation outcomes."
It also says there should be education for all members of the criminal and non-criminal justice systems to ensure the behaviours and actions of trauma survivors are fully understood.
Altrogge Richardson hopes speaking about her experience can help contribute to a better future for survivors.
"I hope that either media or city councillors talk about maybe some reallocation of funds because I can think of a lot of other agencies that would've been able to support me through this with compassion and generosity, which was not what I received," she said.