Keep it quiet, or shine a light: Debate over police reporting on domestic violence
'We do a disservice to the public if we don't make them aware of the frequency of occurrences'
Almost a quarter of the violent crimes in Windsor are domestic assaults, but you would never know it from the news releases that come from city police.
Data reported to the police services board show there were 430 family assaults in the first nine months of 2019. That works out to 1.57 such cases per day.
The Windsor Police Service archives its news releases for 90 days. Since late August, there have been 105 updates sent out. None have been about a domestic incident.
"If we're publishing something, the goal is to assist that investigation," said Sgt. Steve Betteridge. As the public information officer for Windsor police, he decides which cases will be released, in consultation with the investigating officers.
Betteridge said when it comes to a domestic dispute, the perpetrator is readily identifiable, and in many cases right there to be questioned and arrested. According to Betteridge, police also do not need assistance from the public in providing witness statements.
"A domestic violence situation is not out in the public," said Betteridge. "More often than not, they're in a private area, usually a private residence, so there isn't a number of eyewitnesses that don't actually know the involved people. Usually, it's close friends, family, relatives that may be witnesses to something like that."
Betteridge added the privacy rights of those involved is another consideration.
The explanation from Windsor police is understandable to Thom Rolfe, the executive director of Hiatus House, a shelter that provides refuge to female victims of domestic violence. However, Rolfe thinks victims would be more likely to come forward, and would have more faith in the justice system, if they heard this being openly discussed more often.
"The police have an important role to play in terms of public education," Rolfe said.
"They have information, and it doesn't necessarily get shared in a way that helps people understand how frequently this happens. We do a disservice to the public if we don't make them aware of the frequency of occurrences that are happening in our community. The message is that it doesn't happen in Windsor, and we know that it does happen."
Betteridge acknowledged that responding to domestic conflict is a significant element to the duties of a patrol officer in Windsor.
"That is something our officers do — I'd be comfortable with using the word 'frequently.' We do frequently attend those," said Betteridge.
Beyond the boundaries of Windsor, several other police services are equally quiet about instances of domestic violence, with one notable exception: Chatham-Kent police have included details of 18 such cases in their news releases since Sept. 15.
The Chatham-Kent Police Service would provide only a written statement for this story. It did not address what its policy is for deciding to include domestic assault cases in news releases.
"Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for our officers to respond to domestic related calls during their shift," wrote Const. Renee Cowell, the public information officer.
"We are reminding everyone that domestic violence is not tolerated here in our community. All domestic related calls are treated seriously and thoroughly investigated."
Ontario Provincial Police leave it up to the discretion of each local detachment whether to issue news releases on domestic assaults.
"If they have a full-time media officer, if they're available, that timely information being shared, that's when a media release can be done on domestic violence incidents where charges have been laid," explained Sgt. Carolle Dionne, the provincial spokesperson for OPP.
The only blanket policy across Ontario is that the name of an accused not be released to protect the identity of the victim.
Rolfe said it's a balancing act to protect privacy. For example, he is glad police services who do report on domestic violence are not giving out the address of the house or disclosing people's names.
"But I think you can report it broadly in terms of, 'Within Windsor this week, these three situations occurred,' without really divulging or giving away personal data," said Rolfe.
An advocate for victims of domestic assault thinks police should be more forthcoming with information about these crimes.
"The more we talk about it, the more it exposes what the problem is, and it forces people to sit in that discomfort, and that's what's important, because then you have to face the problem," said Anita Prskalo, a residential counselor at Hiatus House. "You have to talk about the problem. You have to acknowledge the problem."
Prskalo says the women she counsels are "split" on which approach they would prefer — keeping it quiet, or letting the world know what happened to them.
"There are some women that are very vocal and are very passionate about telling their story and creating awareness," Prskalo said. "Then there's some of the population that just want to deal with what's going on immediately, get the the immediate support that they need and to move on from it. They really take comfort in that privacy piece."
Prskalo herself was a victim of domestic violence. She was honoured during the Hiatus House Shine the Light campaign, which happened during November — Woman Abuse Prevention Month in Ontario, and Domestic Violence Awareness Month across Canada.
If you need help, please reach out to the services available in Windsor-Essex:
Windsor Police Victim Assistance Unit: 519-255-6700 ext. 4879
Victim Services of Windsor & Essex County: 519-723-2711
Victim/Witness Assistance Program: 519-253-2897