Peel police are joining forces with social services agencies in a ‘radical experiment’ to curb intimate partner violence

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In a “radical experiment” to curb intimate partner violence and family disputes, Peel police are embedding dozens of officers among a legion of social services working to ebb the tide of abuse.

Starting next month, 49 specially trained officers in the newly-minted Peel police intimate partner violence unit will share the same home as about 20 non-profit agencies at the Hon. William G. Davis Centre for Families in Brampton. A section of the building is currently being renovated to accommodate police.

The concept took some buying in from the agencies, which work in addictions, mental health, youth drop-in and family services, said Sharon Mayne Devine, the CEO of Catholic Family Services Peel-Dufferin and the lead of the Safe Centre of Peel, which offers services to victims of domestic violence.

“This is a radical experiment,” she said. “I don’t know how this story is going to turn out but I’m willing to take the chance to make change.”

Devine said the unprecedented move has been brought on by a change in Peel police leadership coupled with a reckoning around anti-Black racism, systemic discrimination and how the pandemic has exposed cracks in all systems.

“What we’re experiencing right now is this watershed moment — this gear-shift — around fundamentally doing some things differently,” Devine said.

Devine, who also co-chairs Peel Committee Against Woman Abuse (PCAWA), said police have given the agencies several assurances including that officers will be plain-clothed and will undergo domestic violence and anti-Black racism training. Police paraphernalia is limited and the unit’s offices are also tucked away to minimize their presence at the site.

Officers from the unit will be available seven days per week, around the clock, to address all calls related to intimate partner and family disputes, which are among the top four call types in Peel, said Deputy Chief Nick Milinovich.

Milinovich said he’s aware of concerns the appearance of police officers may be a barrier for some. “You would have to be naive to think that there aren’t some trust issues related to police,” he said. “We’re trying to be aware of that and not create any concerns for our partners that we’re going to be embedded with.”

Last year in Peel, intimate partner issues accounted for 10,495 calls to police, while police saw 8,000 occurrences for family disputes, a combined total slightly larger than in 2019.

Five of the region’s 16 homicides were linked to intimate partner violence in 2020, while one was linked to a family dispute.

Intimate partner violence accounts for 28 per cent of all police-reported violent crime in Canada, Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland said at a recent news conference.

“In eight out of 10 of these cases, according to Statistics Canada, women are the victims,” she said.

One woman who sought refuge at Safe Centre in 2006 described her experience to the Star, saying her experience as a second-generation immigrant left her living with the expectation she must stay subservient to an abusive husband.

The Brampton resident, who asked not to be identified to protect her identity, said the abuse got worse once she decided to file for divorce. She had to call police, twice to the home, due to altercations with her then-husband.

“Even after we separated we still had an altercation where he ended up punching me,” she said.

The now 37-year-old had to visit a Peel police station several times to file a report of her ordeal, a process she said she found particularly intimidating.

Fifteen years later, she says she endorses the idea of having police in the same building with the agencies abused partners need.

Had police been embedded with Safe Centre at the time, “it would make communicating with the police easier in a safe space,” she said.

Several of the investigators on the specialized unit, like Const. Katherine Kulbak, are survivors themselves who have experienced physical and verbal spousal abuse.

“We’re building trust between these agencies and police that probably hasn’t been there before,” said Kulbak, 54.

She said initiatives also have to be targeted at the men “to change their thinking and to change their ways.”

Not all agencies in the region are fully onside with police being embedded at the Brampton centre.

Sharon Floyd, who co-chairs PCAWA with Devine, said not all survivors, including many who are racialized, will feel comfortable walking into the hub setting because of a fear of police.

“There’s specific attention that needs to be paid with regards to disparities of experiences of racialized community members, due to systemic discrimination, institutional and structural racism that needs to be addressed in those systems before we as an organization would be in a position to be in those same spaces,” she said.

Floyd is the executive director of Embrave: Agency to End Violence, an organization that provides shelter, counselling and advocacy support for many groups of people who may have a distrust of police. Embrave, which runs two Mississauga shelters, is not currently based at the centre for families.

She said less than six per cent of clients facing violence report their cases to police, adding that many people of colour avoid police.

Floyd said the risk for victims has increased during the pandemic because many are now quarantined at home with the abuser and are finding it hard to escape or freely file a complaint due to the risk of alerting the abusive partner.

“Those things are still continuing because we’re still in a lockdown in Peel,” Floyd said. “We have seen a drop in calls to our crisis lines and that’s always a concern.”

Likewise, Devine said her team is seeing similar trends at the Safe Centre, where women complain about how the loss of a job has placed them in even more compromising situations. On average, about 500 women use the Safe Centre each year. Only about half of that number sought services since the lockdown started.

“This is our biggest concern,” Devine said.

Jason Miller is a Toronto-based reporter for the Star covering crime and justice in the Peel Region. His reporting is funded by the Canadian government through its Local Journalism Initiative. Reach him on email: jasonmiller@thestar.ca or follow him on Twitter: @millermotionpic

Jason Miller, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Toronto Star