Arresting the Hurt

Published on December 17, 2011

Second in a three-part series

When it comes to answering a call of suspected domestic violence, there are some things an RNC officer is required to do: there are statements to take, pieces of evidence to gather and paperwork to fill out.Then there are the other things - things that are required not by law, but by the heart.

"They're human beings and they know that it goes beyond the paperwork and the necessary collection of information. It's a kind word or taking the extra time to give the individual some direction," said RNC Chief Bob Johnson. "To be a successful police officer, you've got to care about people. Most of the officers go above and beyond what they've got to do, because they know that little extra help can have such a huge impact on the individual and her family to survive.

"Most officers will tell you that the thing that means the most to them is when they know they've made a difference in somebody's life, and I think they are the things that you remember throughout your career. It's not getting recognition because you've won an award or anything like that - it's the kind word that you get from somebody who said, 'You changed my life,' or, 'You had a big impact on me regaining my confidence and getting my life back.'"

While statistics on the number of calls of domestic violence weren't immediately available from the police, Iris Kirby House, a 22-bed shelter in St. John's for women and children fleeing abusive relationships, runs at 89 per cent capacity on average.

O'Shaughnessy House, a similar facility with 15 beds run by Iris Kirby House in Carbonear, has a similar occupancy rate.

In the past five years, according to the RNC, 80 to 85 per cent of victims of domestic abuse have been female, with the top three alleged abusers their ex-boyfriends/ex-girlfriends, current boyfriends/girlfriends and spouses.

Twice this year, incidents of domestic violence in the St. John's area have allegedly ended up in the ultimate crime: murder.

Thirty-four-year-old Trevor Pardy is in custody, charged in the shooting death of 30-year-old Triffie Wadman Oct. 1.

Police were called to a home on Boggy Hall Place around 1 a.m., when a woman was seen lying in the street.

After a four-hour standoff with police, Pardy was taken into custody, where he remains, awaiting his preliminary inquiry to begin Jan. 16.

In July, a man and a woman, both in their 30s, were shot and found dead in their Knowling Street home, in the west end. The pair lived there together and died in what police say was a murder-suicide.

After the incidents - and in the case of other violent incidents in the city in recent months - the RNC, in providing details to the public about the events, has tried to temper the community's fear by stressing they were incidents of domestic violence or drug deals gone bad, and not random acts.

This isn't to say they are any less worrying, Johnson said.

"We had two innocent women that were murdered by firearms by their partner or someone they had a relationship with. As a police organization, what can we do to help eliminate or minimize or mitigate domestic violence in our communities?" Johnson said.

The police force has allocated many resources to the detection, investigation and prevention of domestic violence, Johnson said, and recognizes it's not just about physical violence; there's emotional, verbal, even financial abuse that can leave scars just as deep.

Police officers participate in mandatory training on the investigation of domestic violence, and the force has an aggressive charge policy when it comes to those crimes.

A critical element, Johnson said, is the accessibility of emergency protection orders to women who need them.

"It's a court order from a provincial court judge that is in place up to 90 days," Johnson said of the order, which could require an accused person to stay away from the victim, or to pay rent or other bills.

A police officer can take the required information from the victim, and the judge can usually make a decision on imposing the order within 24 hours.

"It's a clear example of government and community coming together and saying, 'OK, here's a tool that can support (people) that are involved in domestic violence,' and we continue to use that," Johnson said.

If there are children in the home, police must file a report with Child, Youth and Family Services, and will call in a social worker to assess the needs of the child and the mother and determine if there's a need for an emergency protection order.

The RNC, which has a domestic violence co-ordinator, is also working with other community groups, including Iris Kirby House, to support victims, and is constantly reviewing files to ensure best practices are being used and to see if there's anything, as an organization, it can do to respond and protect against domestic violence.

"We'll continue to try and find ways of addressing domestic violence in our communities," Johnson said. "The landscape is continually changing in terms of how we can improve our response to domestic violence, so we're going to continue to do that, and we'll continue to collaborate with other agencies, whether it's the provincial government, municipal government or the various groups out there."

Widespread problem

Who is a typical abuser? It's hard to say, Johnson said, since violence at home transcends all economic statuses and family structures.

While mental health, addiction and a history of violence in their own families are often common with abusers, that's not always the case.

One thing that's generally true is by the time police are called to a domestic abuse incident, the victim has lived through months or years of distress.

There's a typical pattern of violence, and it often starts with emotional, psychological, verbal or financial abuse and escalates to the physical type.

While each victim's experience is different, the pattern is generally constant, Johnson said, and is the result of a power imbalance in the relationship.

"If there wasn't that power imbalance, often if there was abuse, people would leave because they'd have options," Johnson said. "When you have a power imbalance, (the abuser) uses physical force or control of the purse strings or other things. What I've seen first-hand is not necessarily only the physical scars, but the impact the abuse has had on people, the emotional scars. Often people can walk around our communities and appear to be fine, but they're suffering in silence because of the emotional and psychological abuse that is involved in domestic violence. We usually see the physical piece and can sort of identify that very easily, but often we can't identify the mental and psychological abuse. I worry about that piece."

The RNC also has a role to play in terms of changing the gender imbalance, Johnson said.

Prior to 2005, only six per cent of RNC officers were female. Today female officers make up 21 per cent of the RNC, with the national average at 19 per cent.

In addition to creating a force that may be more sympathetic to female victims, the RNC is creating role models for the community, Johnson said.

"These are women who are in positions of authority, and when they go to incidents of domestic violence, a male officer could probably provide the same support, but (victims see) a role model. I do think that has an impact," he explained.

Johnson said he believes abusers can be rehabilitated, given the right resources.

While ending domestic violence altogether may not be an attainable goal, much progress can be made, Johnson said, adding it comes down to education and community supports.

"Incarceration is required often, but with that needs to come intervention, remediation, rehabilitation and dealing with mental health," he said. "I think it would be a sad day if we didn't believe we could change people's behaviours, but it takes a lot of work. It has to be a collaborative approach."

In Monday's Telegram: A reformed abuser speaks, and details on how domestic violence incidents are handled in provincial court. Twitter: @tara_bradbury