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Our Collective Efforts to Improve the Police Response for Women Escaping Male Violence

By Louisa Russell
May 2008

Over the last 35 years, the Collective of Vancouver Rape Relief and Women’s Shelter has put significant efforts toward improving the police response to women escaping male violence. Despite important formal equality gains, intense advocacy efforts, and more women reporting male violence to their local detachments, many aspects of the police response remain unchanged since the 1970s:

Canadian conviction rates in cases of sexist violence remain extremely low. In some countries, such as England, the attrition rate is actually worse than it was thirty years ago. 

Over 70% of women still do not want to report to the police. The main reason for this reluctance remains their view that they won’t be taken seriously. 

The highest percentage of cases that are “lost” in the criminal justice system continues to be at the initial police level both in Canada and other countries

Aboriginal women, particularly those on reserves, say there has been little to no change. 

As one part of our Anniversary Year events, we decided to do a review of our efforts as women fighting to get an improved police response for raped and battered women. We carried out the review with a team of legal students, volunteers and highly trained Feminist Advocates over a period of about 6 months. Throughout this process we asked ourselves: what decisions served to improve the police response? What tactics turned out to be too time consuming and or rendered too few results? How should we be focusing our advocacy efforts now? 

We were particularly interested in looking at the milestones reached by Vancouver Rape Relief and Women’s Shelter, but of course could not refrain from looking at the related developments in the rest of the City, the Province, and Canada. Some of the highlights from that review include an impressive list of firsts for Rape Relief. Listed below is a very brief snap shot of our review. For a more complete timeline please email us at

Rape Relief opens as the 1st rape crisis centre in Canada.

Rape Relief spearheads the 1st comprehensive training package for police in B.C. on violence against women. The package includes “This Film is About Rape” which is circulated to every anti-rape center in the country.

The 1st sexual assault evidence kit is used in a Canadian hospital. The Impetus of its introduction largely comes from Rape Relief and lobbying efforts through CASAC opposing to haphazard methods of collecting evidence.

1st handbook recognizing the role of front line workers in the criminal justice process is published by Rape Relief: Breaking the Hold: Self Defence in the Legal System: A Rape Relief Court Watchers Manual. It is still used by advocates today.

Canadian parliamentary hearings with Rape Relief and other women’s groups result in The War Against Women report. This report in turn led to increased funds for women’s shelters and educational programs for police about male violence.

Rape Relief organizes with other feminists and women activists to deliver 3 days of public testimony at the Oppal Commission Inquiry into Policing in B.C. Rape Relief recommended, that police resources should be reallocated to ensure full and proper investigation of complaints of male violence against women. In addition, Rape Relief recommended establishment of an ombudsman-style body to oversee complaints in connection with police response, both individual and systemic: a recommendation that was, to some extent, adopted. Recommendations lead to the improved Attorney General of B.C. Violence Against Women in Relationships Policy, which is still considered one of the best police policies in Canada.

After huge public outcry by Rape Relief and others, Josiah Wood appointed by the RCMP to investigate and make both public and private recommendations. It was out of this directive that there were updates to the RCMP policies on wife assault and firearms.

Rape Relief participates in a 5 year research project that results in the CASAC Links Report: Canada’s Promises to Keep — the 1st comprehensive study of its kind on the high attrition rate in cases of male violence.

Rape Relief is awarded intervener status in a high profile civil case against the police. It is the 1st time a rape crisis centre is granted such status in Canada.

1.“If you are a sex offender in BC right now, you have a 98.5 % chance of getting away with it” (RCMP member Matt Logan in his presentation on High Risk and Repeat Offenders at the Premier’s Congress on Public Safety). 

2.“The system discredits women at every level both actively and passively and women know it. 70 – 90% of women talking to rape crisis centres and transition houses have already refused to initiate or participate in criminal proceedings because they will be disregarded, disbelieved, discredited and blamed. Many of those who did initiate or cooperate have been rejected or abandoned by the same system.” 99 Federal Steps to End Violence Against Women, p. 8 

3.The Daily – Statistics Canada, Thursday November 18, 1993 “The Violence Against Women Survey, at p. 7:
“Violent incidents experienced by women 18 years and over by type of victimization and criminal justice processing, Canada, 1993:
Total – 20,543; Total reported to Police – 2,796; Not Reported – 17,571; Of those reported to Police (2,796) Perpetrator Arrested – 913; Not arrested/Charges Not Laid – 1,671.” 

35 Years of Working to Improve the Police Response for Women Escaping Male Violence: a report back from the International Conference on Policing Male Violence 

Cecil Green Park, University of British Columbia, April 23-26, 2008 

In light of our Policing Review (above), Vancouver Rape Relief and Women’s Shelter grouped over 60 front line anti-violence advocates from several countries with similar legal and social conditions as Canada to question how can we improve the police response for women escaping male violence. 

We were keenly aware that the majority of women escaping male violence do not call the police for help. Despite abysmal conviction rates, and internationally accepted criticism of the police system’s response to raped and battered women; for the small percentage of women that do want to use the police, we decided it is still worthwhile to campaign to get a better police response. 

We spent over a year planning the conference. We talked to anti-violence advocates; academics, and lawyers in Canada, England, Scotland, Wales, New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, and the United States, and with significant Aboriginal leaders on the issues. We asked them what the major obstacles they currently identified as forces working against them to getting a good police response for women. What were some of the important advances that they observed since we set out in the 1970’s? Through phone calls and e-mails we developed a proposed agenda that included, some of the key advocates on policing internationally and which grappled with the key questions and debates that included:

What is the nature of effective police advocacy? 

How do the police divert cases of male violence against women? 

What are Feminist Activist’s Recommendations regarding official mechanisms to hold the police to account? 

How have the police countered our efforts to establish more democratic control and civilian oversight of them? 

What impact does the current state of liberal democracy and rise of capitalism/ privatization have on our efforts to improve police response for women escaping male violence? 

The conference was very useful in helping us conceptualize the current Canadian. We were able to situate ourselves in the current political climate of an eroding liberal democracy and increasing conditions of a police state. We became increasingly aware through the process that over the 35 years, rape crisis workers have developed an accrued substantial theory of how police and government hierarchies operate as well as a grounded analysis for improving the police response and overall social change. 

It is noteworthy that participants agreed that the role of feminist organizing and use of the media (main stream and guerrilla actions) in advocacy strategies have been and continue to be extremely effective — much more so than any official complaint watchdog process or police training. However as Colleen Lewis (one conference participant), pointed out, despite British Columbia’s Police Complaints Commission being particularly weak compared with other countries complaint systems, it is still worthwhile to use it and regard it for the window it offers to some democratic control. Regarding police training, we heard for the advocates in England, that where there is significant political will to make substantial changes, police training could have some effectiveness. We were encouraged by Jessica Lenahan’s use of the Inter America’s Commission on Human Rights and other reports regarding the application of various international human rights instruments for women escaping violence, but were keenly aware that without feminist organizing and media campaigns, they have little impact. 

Conference participants told us that they were very concerned about the cost of male violence, and how it is more and more being deferred onto the community and how expectations placed on communities, (particularly in Aboriginal communities) to deal with men’s violence without adequate resources or power to do so. Such limitations, coupled with little to no police intervention are putting women in increasing danger. 

Many left the conference reporting a renewed sense of commitment for working to improve the police response for the women and girls that call their centres for help. 

We recognized just how many demands made several years ago to improve police responses have still not been met and recommitted/ decided that they are still worth campaigning for. One such simple example is that 911 calls, initial police responses be fully documented as public records – see CASAC Links Report and 99 Federal Steps…towards an END to Violence Against Women for a more comprehensive list of outstanding recommendations. 

Through the consciousness raising process of the conference, we started to see how the introduction and promotion of police based victim services, the adoption of the alternative dispute resolution policy at the federal justice department level, and efforts to outsource and privatize the police could be viewed as formalized backlash to our feminist organizing for more civilian oversight and democratic control of our police forces. 

We are now faced with the additional backlash of formal equality gains being used against us. Police regularly treat women as though we are equal with abusive men, and are therefore often abandoned by police to deal with male violence on our own. The rise in trafficked and prostituted women in the current global capitalist climate makes our demands for an improved police response all the more necessary. 

Overall we recognized that the strategy to have trained, anti-violence workers available 24 hours 7 days a week with a comprehensive understanding of what women are entitled to from the police has proven to be an immeasurably successful one. Nearly all of the significant cases that went on to shape or advance the police response for women had an independent advocate beside her. When police refused to help her get to safety or did not adequately protect her our transition houses did. Our houses continue to save lives when the police won’t. We recommitted to continuing on our struggle for an improved police response. As Angie Conroy from South Essex South Essex Rape & Incest Crisis Centre, in England put it we will just keep, “banging on” [until we get equal protection under the law]. 

For a copy of the keynote speech, Of Birthdays and Bloody Hard Questions by Lee Lakeman or specific outcomes of this meeting, please email us at  

1. “If you are a sex offender in BC right now, you have a 98.5 % chance of getting away with it” (RCMP member Matt Logan in his presentation on High Risk and Repeat Offenders at the Premier’s Congress on Public Safety).

2. See, for example, Dobash and Dobash Women, Violence, and Social Change and Violence Against Women Survey, Statistics Canada, Nov. 18, 1993) relatively few women contact the police after an attack. Available statistics vary in this regard, however, it is notable that, for example, that Statistics Canada reports in The Daily, 2005 that only 8% of sexual assaults are reported to police.

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