N.S. declined RCMP request for domestic violence unit, documents show

Nova Scotia RCMP requested a sex crime and intimate partner violence unit in May 2020, weeks after a gunman killed 22 people in a rampage that began with him attacking his spouse. (CBC - image credit)
Nova Scotia RCMP requested a sex crime and intimate partner violence unit in May 2020, weeks after a gunman killed 22 people in a rampage that began with him attacking his spouse. (CBC - image credit)

Nova Scotia RCMP flagged in 2020 that its officers were not equipped to deal with a growing number of intimate partner violence reports, but a request for "much-needed" experts to investigate these cases was not approved by the province.

Documents obtained through an access to information request show the RCMP's H Division, which serves Nova Scotia, submitted a business case to the province's Justice Department in May 2020 for a sex crimes and intimate partner violence unit.

It would have consisted of four specialized investigators and cost the province about $1.8 million over three years.

"Creating a specialized unit will ensure a consistent approach to investigations and relieve investigational pressure from front line members," the documents say.

"These investigations are complex and time consuming, requiring a specific, specialized skillset for taking statements and gathering evidence."

The documents say there has been a significant increase in the number of intimate partner violence reports to RCMP in parts of Nova Scotia. They say reports rose 233 per cent outside of Halifax Regional Municipality between 2008 and 2018.

Yet the rising reports of intimate partner violence represent a small portion of the overall problem, the documents say. Statistics from the Nova Scotia Advisory Council on the Status of Women cited in the request say less than two per cent of intimate partner violence incidents in the province are reported to police.

Establishing such a unit would have helped close gaps in the reporting process and meet recommendations from past reviews of how police investigated the Rehtaeh Parsons and Susie Butlin cases, the request says.

"A specialized unit with dedicated resources will help increase the public's confidence in the police and the judicial system. This will hopefully encourage victims to report crimes."

Need to 'reconfigure' first response 

Nova Scotia RCMP made the request weeks after a gunman killed 22 people in a rampage that began with him attacking his spouse. It's unclear whether that tragedy played a role in the force's decision to ask for a specialized police unit.

The Mass Casualty Commission's final report, released on March 30, highlights that the gunman came to the attention of police and emergency services several times before the April 2020 mass shooting because of violent behaviour toward his spouse and others.

The report identifies shortcomings in investigating sexual assaults and gender-based violence, and recommends several changes for police including increased supervision for front-line officers.

Interim Commissioner Mike Duheme said after the report was released that the force had set up a committee to review and address its recommendations.

The RCMP's Nova Scotia division declined an interview request but a spokesperson said in an email they have made "significant changes"  in recent years to how they investigate intimate partner violence.

Officers receive ongoing training and a Sexual Assault Investigation Review Committee was created in 2019, the spokesperson says.

The email says questions about why the unit wasn't approved should be directed to the Department of Justice.

A spokesperson for the province would not comment on why the previous government declined to approve the request, but says the Department of Justice has been delivering domestic violence training to all police agencies in Nova Scotia since May 2020.

The Department of Justice has approved 19 new positions since last year for the RCMP Major Crimes unit, which investigates serious offences like sexual violence, the spokesperson says.

Ann de Ste Croix, provincial co-ordinator for Transition House Association of Nova Scotia, says it's clear that "there's a need for a different way to approach these situations."

No one working in women's advocacy would be surprised the RCMP knows its officers aren't equipped to properly investigate intimate partner violence, she says.

Children of women who came to the transition houses 20 years ago are now coming to these facilities as survivors of intimate partner violence themselves, de Ste Croix says.

"It really is a cycle of violence and it will continue to repeat itself unless we do something differently," de Ste Croix says.

Robert Guertin/CBC
Robert Guertin/CBC

Some women hesitate to call police because they escalate the situation and use a one-size-fits-all approach, she says. In addition, African Nova Scotian and Mi'kmaw communities likely distrust the justice system because of the historical harm done to them, de Ste Croix says.

She says police are part of a larger system that doesn't connect victims and perpetrators with services that address the problem but they're usually the first point of contact.

"If there could be a way to reconfigure that team that does that first response to be able to offer alternatives," de Ste Croix says, "I think that would be really helpful for survivors."

Creating a 'web of accountability'

The failure to establish a sex crimes and intimate partner violence RCMP unit in Nova Scotia is "costly in terms of suffering and human lives, costly in terms of eventual cost to the system as well," says Katreena Scott, director of the Centre for Research and Education on Violence Against Women and Children at Western University.

Police can play a vital role in detecting violence early on, as they're often called to the same home several times due to intimate partner violence, says Scott, who prepared an expert report on preventing intimate partner violence for the Mass Casualty Commission.

Submitted by Katreena Scott
Submitted by Katreena Scott

Collaboration between police and services for victims and their spouses is critical to preventing further violence, she says.

"That's the web of accountability. We can't just let people continue to behave in harmful, dangerous and violent ways and just have nothing happen as a result."

The goal is to have several agencies working together to share information, intervene and respond with proper services while identifying gaps in the system, she says.

In her research, Scott identified six programs in the province that address intimate partner violence, such as men's programs, child and youth services and women's shelters.

"I might suggest that six programs may not be enough for all of Nova Scotia."