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The death of a woman in front of a Calgary elementary school this week has prompted many experts to call for substantive changes in how family violence is communicated and dealt with by police.Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

When a woman was stabbed to death outside a Calgary elementary school on Tuesday, police said in the immediate aftermath that it was a “targeted incident,” “domestic in nature,” and, with the suspect found dead nearby, that it posed “no risk to the public.”

The next day, when a 66-year-old woman was found dead in her Chilliwack, B.C. home – where a man, 68, was arrested, and another man, 37, was found injured – police were similarly guarded, saying only that it was “an isolated incident between three family members, with no ongoing risk to the public.”

In both cases, police announced they would not be releasing the names of the victims, in order to protect their families’ privacy.

But some anti-violence experts are questioning this approach, arguing that reluctance among police to discuss domestic homicides perpetuates the idea that these are private, one-off cases not meant to be aired publicly.

They are calling for more transparency, arguing that information about the victims and their attackers is critical for tracking and prevention, and for educating the public about the prevalence and impact of intimate partner violence, which accounts for at least a third of all violent crime in Canada.

When police withhold information after domestic homicides, they risk minimizing these crimes, according to Marlene Ham, executive director of the Ontario Association of Interval and Transition Houses, which has been tracking femicides – targeted killings of women – in the province since 1995.

“It has the unintended consequence of portraying these crimes as something that isn’t of public concern. … We then don’t have the opportunity to contextualize these crimes as a gendered social problem – as a crime with a history that led up to that moment,” she said.

Senator Paula Simons, who wrote about the issue during her 30-year journalism career, said this “veil of secrecy” also implies that this violence is “something to be embarrassed about, instead of something to be confronted.”

“There is still in our culture this deep-seated belief that somehow domestic violence is embarrassing. ‘It’s a shame on the family, and we should not let people know that it’s happening.’ That’s really dangerous,” she added.

In an e-mail, Calgary Police spokesperson Leah Brownridge said decisions about whether to identify suspects and victims publicly are made on a case-by-case basis, but that generally police do not release names in domestic assaults or homicides, because doing so might also identify surviving victims or the children of those involved.

Andrea Silverstone, the chief executive officer of Calgary’s Sagesse Domestic Violence Prevention Society, said police should respect the wishes of families and survivors. But she added that releasing at least some basic details is necessary in order to make public the realities of this kind of violence.

“I understand the police’s desire to respect and be very sensitive to the experience of victims of these kinds of horrific homicides or attacks,” she said. “I also know that when we shine light on something, it creates the capacity of people to talk about it and to humanize it and to make it part of the public discourse.”

“It is a really hard balance to strike.”

Ms. Brownridge, the police spokesperson, added that domestic incidents where suspects have been identified “do not carry the same level of risk to public safety” as other crimes, where a suspect may be unknown or still at large. In the latter cases, she noted, there may be a need to name victims publicly in order to move investigations along.

But advocates take issue with the suggestion that many domestic homicides pose no threat to public safety, given the scope of the broader societal problem such violence presents.

“We see that statement. It doesn’t open the door to a discussion, it closes it,” Ms. Ham said. “While now there is no threat to public safety, we know in a few days there’s going to be another woman who is going to be killed. And in a few more days, another woman is going to be killed.”

These crimes are neither isolated nor private, she said. “This isn’t just between two individuals. A multitude of systems and services, friends, family, neighbours, co-workers are involved in their lives.”

Researchers caution that failing to rapidly contextualize these crimes beyond labels like “targeted incident” also compromises data collection, posing serious challenges for organizations that track this type of violence, including the Canadian Femicide Observatory for Justice and Accountability.

“We need to call things what they are,” said Katreena Scott, director at Western University’s Centre for Research and Education on Violence Against Women and Children.

“The need to understand this as a distinct form of killing of women is important,” Dr. Scott said. “Dancing around the information isn’t helpful, from that perspective.”

Some advocates warn that vague police communication leaves room for rumour and misinformation to fill the void – and can shield authorities from scrutiny. Ms. Simons said disclosing suspects’ criminality and prior charges is critical to pinpointing where police, courts, support staff and even families or friends might have missed red flags or opportunities to intervene.

“It is worth asking in these cases: where was the ball dropped?”

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