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Police sensitivity training takes a hit
Most charges minor: Feminist view of wife assault challenged in study

Donna Laframboise
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 murder.

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 hospitalized.

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."


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