‘We want to give the power back to the victim and survivor’
March 7, 2023 By Mia Jensen, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Mar. 7, 2023, Sudbury, Ont. – Sudbury police are determined to learn more about trauma as a way to improve how they investigate cases of sexual assault.
On Monday, Greater Sudbury Police Services hosted the Power of Believing – Sexual Assault Awareness Conference, which brought together members of the service and local organizations to discuss how sexual assault is – and should be – investigated in Sudbury.
Over the past decade, the police service has slowly implemented new practices to improve their investigations, according to Det.-Const. Stephanie Rainville, an investigator and sexual assault coordinator.
“We want to give the power back to the victim and survivor,” she said. “That means that we must also educate our officers to know that and treat them with respect. Also, they must understand trauma.”
For Rainville, trauma is central an sexual assault investigation.
Part of what police service has done, she said, is shift to a trauma-informed approached, which focuses on understanding how an instance of violence may affect the memory, conduct, and behaviour of a survivor during an interview with police.
That means ensuring investigators can spot signs of trauma is key.
“I can’t say that it’s the same for everyone,” said Rainville. “One example, in an interview back in 2013, I had one victim who was smiling and laughing in her interview. I was not trained in trauma and I did not recognize that as a sign of trauma. It could be laughing, it could be crying. It could actually be silence.”
It’s an issue that creates unique challenges for investigator, but one that’s been ignored in the past.
“Back in the day, it would be a he-said-she-said, but that’s why we have to investigate and look further into things,” said Rainville. “They’re very complex. A lot of times, we will not have witnesses. The chronology of events will not be exactly explained like the officers would like to see it explained. That’s another sign of trauma. There will be no chronology and no exact timeframes.”
Mark Heyes, an instructor with the Ontario Police College, spoke to attendees at the conference about the neurobiology of trauma and officer training has shifted to include those complexities.
“We’re talking about how we can have individual police officers understand when somebody has gone through a trauma experience, understanding how their brain is functioning during the time of the interview, and understand when the information is provided to the police, that it doesn’t come chronologically,” he said. “It’s going to be scattered. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle. So we’re there to help them put the pieces of the puzzle together.”
Previously, officers tended to use the typical questioning framework, focusing on who, what, when and why. Now, questions are more broad.
“We talk about it from the lens of: Tell me what happened? Explain to me how things happened? What is it that you can’t forget? What was going through your head at the time? We’re leaving it very open now, instead of the typical police questioning.”
For many officers, Heyes said, trauma is “difficult to understand” because its effects are often varied and complex.
“If they don’t know how trauma can affect each individual person, they may feel that the person is lying or being deceptive to them about what’s happening,” he said. “They don’t understand how the brain is functioning when trauma has happened and they’re trying to recall the information.”
This attitude towards survivors of sexual assault has been prevalent among police for decades.
In 2019, Statistics Canada reported that only six per cent of sexual assaults experienced by Canadians over the age of 15 were reported to police.
A peer-reviewed articled in BMC Women’s Health suggested that such under-reporting across North America is due to a lack of trust. They found that police services across North American have been criticized for blaming and stereotyping victims who do report, as well as perpetuating false myths about the prevalence of false reports or correlation between sexual assault and high-risk lifestyles.
In the last decade, there have also been numerous reports of that sexual assault reports were classified as “unfounded” and thrown out based on these biases without proper investigation.
These issues mean police have to prioritize rebuilding trust with victims, according to Heyes.
“It’s difficult; I’m not going to lie about that,” he said. “From the Police College’s standpoint, we’re providing this trauma-informed training for the police so that they can get a better understanding of how trauma is affected in an individual.”
According to Rainville, the conference is an opportunity not only to teach officers, but to demonstrate to survivors that police in Sudbury are committed to improving the way they investigate sexual assault.
“We want the community to know that we’re also being educated as investigators,” she said. “We’re recognizing trauma and because of that, we’re being trained every day to keep up with new information that’s provided in case law so that we can be more successful with our sexual assault investigations and being able to provide that support and service for victims and survivors.”
– The Sudbury Star
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