Police sensitivity training takes a hit
Most charges minor: Feminist view of wife assault challenged in study
National Post, Wednesday, October 28, 1998
Theresa Petkau began her MA thesis on domestic abuse with conventional thinking on the subject. Her research didn't back it up.
Back in 1995, when she began researching her MA thesis at McMaster University in
Hamilton, Ont., Theresa Petkau could see the future. She'd evaluate the wife assault
sensitivity training police officers were receiving, suggest ways to make it better and,
with luck, land a job at the Ontario Police College providing that training herself.
But matters didn't work out the way she hoped. After agreeing to grant the
participating police force in a "large Ontario city" anonymity, she interviewed
more than 40 officers, accompanied them in cruisers, and examined in depth what they are
taught about domestic violence. Afterward, she found herself concluding that the training
is a colossal failure.
"My biases going into this research were that I was sympathetic to the feminist
account of wife assault and supportive of sensitivity training," she says. "But
officers had a different account of what was going on. I didn't want to hear what they
were telling me, but I talked to different ages, different backgrounds, different people,
and they all said the same thing."
Petkau, who completed her thesis earlier this year, says the aim of current police
sensitivity training is to persuade officers to adopt an overtly politicized view of
family violence. This training is often provided by employees of women's shelters whose
analysis is militantly feminist.
Officers are told that men believe they are entitled to control their wives; that women
are often assaulted 35 times before they finally call the police; and that women must
always be treated as thoroughly credible witnesses so they will feel comfortable
disclosing everything that has occurred.
Through the use of what Petkau calls "atrocity stories," officers are also
told that domestic violence is all about vicious beatings, severe burns, stab wounds and
According to Petkau, the problem with this analysis is that it fails to take into
account both the banality and complexity of real life. "If [police officers] just
stopped going to domestic calls, they could buy the training," she says. "At
first, I could buy the training. I'd never been to a domestic call. Wife assault was
awful, you read about it in the feminist literature."
In truth, however, the vast majority of domestic violence charges laid by police fall
into the most minor assault category. The typical domestic violence scenario in which
police get involved is limited to pushing and shoving. Indeed, a Statistics Canada study
of women who have fled to battered women's shelters shows that three quarters of that
population did not require any medical attention whatsoever, and only 3% were
At a certain point in her research, Petkau says she realized the officers she was
interviewing weren't talking about domestic violence as she had been envisioning it, and
so she added a new question to her interview. She began asking how many seriously battered
women they'd encountered.
"I watched officers with 12 years experience sit back and count on their fingers:
'one, no, two,' " says Petkau.
In the words of one officer, "I haven't gone to too many domestics where the woman
is black and blue. In five years, you go to a number of them but not where he's really
hauled off and punched her, broke her nose, or given her a black eye."
The officers told Petkau that, in many cases, they wouldn't have laid a criminal charge
if it were not a domestic call. "It seems as though we take it a lot more seriously
when a woman's alleging assault," she quotes one officer as saying. "You never
want to be criticized for not doing enough." After relating a particular anecdote,
another officer added: "If it wasn't a domestic, I wouldn't have arrested. But, based
on the [mandatory charging] policy, I'm stuck." Said another, "I've charged a
lot of people with no physical evidence at all, based on her word."