Officers hope new training will improve how police respond to sexual assault survivors who come forward

Det. Sgt. Alana Morrison leads the sexual assault support program with the Nishnawbe Aski Police Service, a First Nation service working in Treaty 9 communities across northern Ontario. She points out that officers untrained in how to deal with sexual assault survivors may be doing more harm than good. (Logan Turner/CBC - image credit)
Det. Sgt. Alana Morrison leads the sexual assault support program with the Nishnawbe Aski Police Service, a First Nation service working in Treaty 9 communities across northern Ontario. She points out that officers untrained in how to deal with sexual assault survivors may be doing more harm than good. (Logan Turner/CBC - image credit)

WARNING: This story contains discussion of sexual violence.

Police officers from northwestern Ontario say they hope new training they've developed will improve the response of officers across Canada when survivors of sexual violence report crimes, including handling them with sensitivity.

Developers of the training, which is set to be made available by the end of this month through the Ontario Police Video Training Alliance (OPVTA), say it should be mandatory for all officers, as sexual violence continues to be one of the most under-reported crimes in Canada.

"In my opinion in 20 years of policing, I believe that we've probably done more harm than good in the past. That's because untrained officers are conducting video statements with sexual assault victims, and unfortunately, I feel like we may have added to ongoing issues for a survivor," said Alana Morrison, detective sergeant with the Nishnawbe Aski Police Service (a First Nation service in Treaty 9 communities across northern Ontario) and lead for its sexual assault support program.

Research estimates one in four North American women will be sexually assaulted during their lifetime, with an estimated 600,000 sexual assaults happening in Canada every year.

Yet only about six per cent of sexual assaults were reported to police, according to a 2021 report on police-reported crime statistics by Statistics Canada.

A 2022 study published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Interpersonal Violence looked at the experiences of 23 women who reported a sexual assault to police, and found the women often felt they were treated with insensitivity, and faced blaming questions, lack of investigation and lack of followup from police.

Morrison said she hopes this new training program will change that.

Putting theory into practice

The training consists of three hour-long videos, each showing officers as they take statements, each in different situations: Human trafficking, childhood sexual assault, and sexual trauma experienced by an Indigenous survivor.

After the interviews are completed, the video shows commentary from trauma and legal experts, as well as reflections from the officer and the survivor about the experience.

Det. Staff Sgt. Dayna Wellock is an Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) detective staff sergeant and the lead for the victim response support unit for the service's northwest unit. She applied for funding and led development of the new training.

Police officers have been receiving training to learn about how trauma affects the brain for several years, Wellock said, but it often doesn't show how to put that knowledge into practice.

Submitted by Dayna Wellock
Submitted by Dayna Wellock

"The gap is, what does that actually look like when you're interviewing a victim of sexual assault or other violent crime?" Wellock said.

"The idea [in the new video training] was to give something for the officers that's very tangible and a really good example they can follow, and understand what a trauma-informed statement actually looks like in practice."

Dr. Lori Haskell is a clinical psychologist who was named in 2022 to the Order of Canada for her "groundbreaking and transformational research into the treatment of violence and trauma in vast sectors of society." Haskell is also one of the experts who appears in the new officer training videos.

She has offered police training on trauma for years, and said there needs to be better understanding on the neurobiology behind trauma and how that affects a person's response.

"What does that mean for how people's memory, their attention, their cognition and their behaviour is altered when they are exposed to an experience that's threatening, highly stressful or traumatic," she said.

Haskell said that during the training courses she leads, she puts officers through a hypothetical scenario: What would they focus on if she suddenly pulled out a gun at them?

Often, in a traumatic event like that, people don't encode information like the colour of the room or what another person is wearing, she said. "You're focusing on what's essential for survival."

To interview someone in a trauma-informed way means allowing people the space to share what they do remember, instead of asking blaming questions or interrupting, she said.

"It's the nature of how you ask [the questions], and what are you asking them for. Are you doing them to try to destabilize the person, to disrupt their narrative or other things that are inconsistent, or you didn't understand and there's something you need to understand more?"

Wellock said she believes this type of training is unique for police officers.

The type of training officers in Ontario get

In a statement to CBC News, a spokesperson with Ontario's solicitor general said the Ontario Police College delivers training to both new and experienced officers emphasizing the importance of officers responding in a trauma-informed manner.

That includes one 90-minute session dedicated to the topic for recruits in the basic constable training, the spokesperson said.

Joe Coutu, director of government relations and communications for the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police, added there are other training programs that have been developed by individual police officers.

Officers across Ontario are getting more training on the impacts of trauma and the need to respond in an understanding way, Coutu said, but more high-quality and consistent training is always needed.

The newly developed video training is expected to be uploaded by the end of January on the website of the OPVTA. Formed in 1996, the OPVTA provides learning materials to some 25,000 members across 90 police forces.

While Morrison, Wellock and Haskell believe the training should be mandatory for all officers across Canada, that decision would come down to each individual police force.

Support is available for anyone who has been sexually assaulted. You can access crisis lines and local support services through this Government of Canada website or the Ending Violence Association of Canada database. If you're in immediate danger or fear for your safety or that of others around you, please call 911.