In a small Ontario city, local police are sharing intimate details of domestic violence cases with their community, shedding light on a crime that’s often hidden away in private homes.
Kingston Police’s domestic violence news releases include precise information about what was done to the victim, including at times graphic reports of beatings and intimidation. In one notice this summer, police described one man’s alleged history of assaults on the same woman in the city – striking her in the face, grabbing her by the hair, throwing her to the ground, kicking her in the stomach and back, spitting in her face, choking her and searching her Facebook profile and threatening her with a knife.
Many other police jurisdictions in Canada release information about domestic violence in sparse, vague terms – or not at all. The Kingston force made a decision a few years ago to change protocol. “We want to give enough information to really catch people’s interest, to really make them think, to make them aware,” said Constable Cameron Mack, the service’s media relations officer.
They want to show Kingston residents what domestic violence looks like, as well as reminding them that it’s happening – often. Doing so, they hope, will result in more people recognizing such violence if it’s present in their life, the life of a loved one or a neighbour. And it seems to be working.
Though Statistics Canada numbers for police-reported intimate-partner violence in Kingston are relatively low, with 223 female and 53 male victims of such violence reported in 2016, the local calls for show a much larger issue. In 2016, Kingston police logged 1,544 domestic calls. So far this year, they’ve logged 975.
According to Kingston Police data, domestic calls have been increasing every year since the more detailed releases began. They see it as a sign that people in Kingston are getting better at recognizing and reporting situations that might constitute domestic violence.
The initiative was launched in 2012 by Steve Koopman, a constable at the time. Sergeant Koopman says he watched as the service’s patrol officers made arrest after arrest for domestic violence, while, at meetings of the Ontario Media Relations Officers Network (OMRON) – a subcommittee of the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police – he observed a reluctance from other media officers to talk about those cases publicly.
“There seemed to be a bit of an underlying tone … that because it was too sensitive they weren’t going to really discuss domestic issues or domestic violence,” Sgt. Koopman said. The other services weren’t acting maliciously; they were primarily concerned with victims’ rights and privacy, he said.
“But at the same time, I was like, can we think outside the box? Or is there a middle ground? Can we discuss it while still being sensitive to the nature of it, trying not to get into too much detail where we’re identifying the victim or making them feel any more vulnerable?’”
It’s a tricky balance, he acknowledged. The worst details are what entice people to read about what happened. But including the details isn’t always easy on the victims, who can be grappling with a traumatic situation and are less concerned with public education. The first step in the process for a media officer is speaking to the officer or detective in charge of the case, about what details can and should be included. (The allegations in each release haven’t yet been tested in court.)
Both Sgt. Koopman and the current media officer, Constable Mack, have seen victims come forward and say they read the story and knew immediately that it was about them. Though a release won’t name the victim or the accused, some may still feel that their case is identifiable through the details included.
Terri Kennedy, the service’s domestic violence co-ordinator and bail safety officer, said she’s seen three or four victims upset by the release.
“Victims will say to me, ‘Oh my god, I’m all over the news,’ and I have to bring them back and go, ‘Well, no. The only reason you’re aware is because that’s you. You recognize that was you. But my neighbour, even my children, don’t know who you are if they hear that media release in the morning’,” she said.
She called domestic cases a “private kind of crime” – one that occurs within the home, within a relationship, and often outside of view of the general public.
Marlene Ham, executive director of the Ontario Association of Interval and Transition Houses (OAITH), and Mavis Morton, a researcher currently engaged in study of relationship violence against women at the University of Guelph, reviewed Kingston Police’s domestic releases at the request of The Globe and Mail.
They were encouraged by the inclusion of information about an alleged perpetrator’s history of domestic violence against their alleged victim, Ms. Ham said. OAITH and Ms. Morton’s previous research into media coverage of femicide noted that domestic histories often went unexplored. And police-service releases are often where news outlets get their first pieces of information about incidents of domestic violence, Ms. Ham said. “We’re hopeful to see that these press releases are providing some of that background context.”
She would like to see more information released on their methodology, she said. If there is a strategy behind how prominent a victim’s gender is made in the release, she would like to see that articulated more transparently by the police. As well, she’s interested in more disclosure on what consultation work is done with violence-against-women service providers or local community organizations. Establishing some kind of review process with these groups, on a long-term basis, would add a lot of value to the work Kingston Police are doing, she said.
Though Constable Mack sees the project as a success – “more people are calling when they hear an argument in the apartment next door, or screaming in the house across the street, because they read these incidents we put out,” he said – he also acknowledges that the system isn’t perfect.
Their releases don’t include every piece of information or context that factor into an allegation of domestic violence. Sometimes, readers will argue on Kingston Police’s social media pages about the nitty-gritty details of a specific incident.
Constable Mack has started putting a disclaimer at the bottom of his releases to try to make it clear that they’re intended as an overview, not an exhaustive run-down of all witness statements, evidence, officers’ observations, mental-health issues or drug addictions at play. And some information may be withheld for use as evidence in a later trial.
Although the numbers of reported incidents are up, the police see it as progress.
“If you’re sitting there and you hear your neighbours yelling and screaming," says Constable Mack, "and you say, ‘remember that article a week ago, where he did this and that to her? Maybe that’s going on. Maybe we should just call the police to be safe.’ That, ultimately, is what we’re trying to effect.”