Why domestic violence victims often feel retraumatized by police
Once domestic violence victims call police, they sometimes regret they did and feel retraumatized by investigators.
Badly injured, Marie-France (a pseudonym) sought shelter at her father’s house, wanting to buy time, let her wounds heal and figured out how she and her children could quietly slip away from her abuser.
Her father believed the police would help. But Marie-France feared police involvement would give her less control over an already chaotic situation.
After what she describes as hours of “badgering and threatening” by police, she agreed to allow photographs of her injured body and a three-hour sworn video statement.
Afterwards, police told Marie-France she no longer had a role to play in the prosecution of her own abuse. They explained that out of concern for Marie-France’s well-being and to protect her from retraumatization, they had assembled evidence that would speak for Marie-France in her stead.
In effect, they created a second victim out of bits of evidence and this victim was guaranteed to be more compliant and less volatile than Marie-France herself. She asked the police what would happen if she changed her mind and wanted to withdraw the complaint. The police, confirming her worst fears, told her that was not possible.
“Your evidence is all we need,” Marie-France says she was told. “We have a version of you who can speak in court. The real you won’t be needed.”
I have collected 50 stories from women whose abuse at the hands of their intimate partners was investigated by police. My preliminary research has found their stories are similar to Marie-France’s. Once the cops got involved, many women quickly wished they weren’t.
Survivors talked of moving from one abusive, controlling relationship to another. They learned to fear the state more than their abusers because ultimately the state could do worse than what their partners did.
State involvement in survivor’s lives can threaten everything from housing to relationships with children to immigration and employment status. For abused women, the state’s protection can be dangerous.
In Marie-France’s case, the police warned her she could be charged with perjury and obstructing justice if she tried (as so many survivors do for complex reasons) to recant or change her story. They also reminded her that the Children’s Aid Society did not look kindly on women who tried to protect their abusers, which she regarded as a veiled threat.
Marie-France told me her loss of control over her own story, images of her own body and her own words through the course of the investigation left her feeling silenced, powerless and totally removed from her own victimization.
The dangers of police response
The Black Lives Matter and Defund the Police movements have shown that police responses to crises are often dangerous for racialized and Indigenous people as well as people with mental illnesses. It’s time to add domestic violence victims to this list.
This year, as Canadians observe National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women on Dec. 6 in response to the mass murder of 14 women at Montreal’s École Polytechnique, some organizations are drawing attention to domestic abuse.
Sweeping criminal justice reforms in the late 1980s and early ‘90s introduced “vigorous prosecutions” — a method of response to a domestic violence call that emphasizes rapid evidence collection designed to capture the “pure version” of events.