A week ago, looking for any sort of municipal support, I sent the following letter to the e-mails accounts of all of the Vancouver City Councillors, as of today two of them have responded. Later this week I used the following letter as the basis for an official complaint against the systems of the Vancouver Police Department and their governing body the Vancouver Police Board.
The letter concerns the Vancouver Police Department’s ineffective, underfunded and non-prioritized sex crimes division. Accompanying this there is also criticism of the lack of budgetary transparency within the VPD as well as the inadequacy of budget and priority given to the VPD sex crimes unit. This letter also serves to detail the ineffective process that is in place to give citizens the ability, or inability as it were, to speak out constructively regarding the systemic law enforcement policies of Vancouver. The names of the officers involved in this matter have been purposely withheld. This letter also details a person’s strength and perseverance in the face of multiple injustices.
The following letter contains content that some may consider graphic as well as information that may trigger people. It is not the intent of this letter to offend or shock but to draw attention to the crucial issues of: the damaging systemic attitudes and policies of the Vancouver Police Department regarding sexual assault, the investigation thereof, as well as their lack of respect for the trauma and safety of victims and the perceived inaccessibility of this branch of law enforcement.
The Police need to say:
We can do better
On June 22nd, 2016 a female friend of mine, Catherine, was sexually assaulted close to her home in East Vancouver. After the attack, she called The Vancouver Police Department. They arrived, they took her clothes for processing, and told her that someone would be assigned to her case. A hat had been dropped at the scene of the crime and the VPD would take the DNA tested to see if it hit a match with anyone in their systems. The next day, she went into the Police station at Gravely and Boundary where she sat in a formal interview room and gave a statement to the Detective in charge of her case. She was told that an officer would be by later in the week to get a DNA swab from her. In the days that followed, Catherine attempted to get in touch with the Detective but to no avail. He was either repeatedly “sick” or was scheduled off. Frustrated and angry, Catherine spoke out about her experience on social media and within a week, she was receiving calls from the media. And so was she only then contacted by the VPD. In the period of the past two week, there had been 4 assaults on women in East Vancouver, aside from Catherine, and the media wanted to know more about Catherine’s assault. The VPD had admonished Catherine for speaking out publicly, telling her that if she shared too much about her experience, it could jeopardize her case.
July 2nd, 2016: The Detective in charge of Catherine’s case got in touch with her, almost two weeks later, to ask her to come in and work with someone to create a composite sketch of her attacker. Over the next week, Catherine had intermittent communication with the VPD, all of which happened over the phone instead of e-mail. They informed her that they would not be going public with her case because they didn’t want to create “White Noise” in the media, a comment that deeply offended Catherine for obvious reasons. Catherine explained to the Detective her frustration with the VPD’s lack of apparent interest in her case. She couldn’t understand why in the first week following her assault there were no officers coming to her for a composite sketch, DNA swab, and interview; making use of the details while her memory was still fresh. More so, the Detective assigned to her was neither available nor did he seem to display any urgency regarding her case. The VPD gave no accommodating response, offering only a verbal shrug.
July 4th, 2016: Catherine goes to the VPD to attempt to describe her attacker for a composite sketch but can’t remember or doesn’t want to remember the face of the man who assaulted and traumatized her. The VPD treated her like she wasted their time. They also told her that the Vancouver forensics lab was “backed up” so they would need to send her clothes to a lab in Guelph Ontario for DNA testing. They would be sending the multiple articles of clothing from her case one piece at a time.
August 24th 2016: Catherine received a call – always a phone call, never a record of the interaction – from the Detective assigned to her case stating they had matched the DNA in the baseball hat found at the scene of her attack with someone in their database. The man is considered a “street bully” by the VPD but the officer speaking to Catherine stated that the suspect didn’t have a track record of attacking women, so the police “weren’t worried”. The VPD stated that they couldn’t share the man’s identity with Catherine and that she would have to wait until mid-October, four months after the incident, to hear back from the DNA testing on her clothes to see if it is a match to the DNA found in the hat.
October 15 2016: After repeated attempts to get in touch with anyone related to her case, Catherine is finally told that the lead Detective of her case has been re-assigned and that he had in fact, not been working on her case for the past month. He was replaced by a new officer who Catherine immediately attempted to contact, but unsurprisingly without any success. Catherine left numerous messages, none of which were returned.
December 2016: No one from the VPD has called Catherine in months, so she starts phoning the VPD Sex Crimes unit directly. Her case had been passed from officer to officer until finally, she is given a female officer to talk to. The female office took down her info and passed it up the chain of command to a male superior. A few days later, this female officer phoned Catherine to tell her that her case had essentially been closed since there had not been sufficient evidence to link the DNA on her clothes to that found in the hat. Catherine was angry because the VPD had known this for a while and had failed to share the information with her. Catherine asked why she had never done a lineup with the potential suspects to which the officer had no response. At this point the officer attempted to calm Catherine down by telling her that the suspect related to the hat found at the scene “doesn’t attack women”, to which Catherine angrily responded “he attacked me” and hung up the phone.
December 8 2016: The original lead Detective for Catherine’s case, the one who was removed, calls her and asks her if she still wants to do a photo lineup; she says yes. Almost six months after her initial attack, the Police bring Catherine in to look through a massive stack of suspect photographs. In the months since Catherine had done everything she could to block out the memory of the attack, much less the face of her attacker. Catherine did not feel confident about her choice from the mug shots in the photo book and the Police once more behaved as if she had wasted their time. This is six months after the attack.
May 2017: Catherine has her caseworker from Women Against Violence Against Women contact the Police to see if Catherine can have her clothes back. A day or two later, Catherine was called by that original Detective again and he said her clothes had been returned to the Police Property office. Catherine went down there where she discovered that not all her belongings had been returned. At this point she vented her frustrations with the entire police apparatus, focusing on the lead Detective who had seemingly ignored her case. The Property office clerk then shared with Catherine that the Detective who had been assigned to her case had never been a full-fledged investigator; he had only been training to be a Detective. He currently wasn’t a Detective which the clerk stated was probably reflective of his investigative skills. Over the next month, Catherine would go on to try and retrieve the rest of her clothing as well as some sort of resolution of closure from the VPD. She received neither. She went through the list of people she had been assigned to but none of them returned her calls. All of Catherine’s communication with the VPD was done over the telephone, where there would be no record of her conversations or attempts to contact those in charge of her case, much less any concrete statements offering solace. Catherine once more shared her frustrations with the VPD on social media. I, Axel, saw it and contacted her to say that I would help her speak out and share her story so that perhaps the VPD could change its systems and policies regarding the procedures and approaches to interacting with victims of sex crimes. Catherine told me about the numerous women who had contacted her after she made her assault public and how all of them had similarly awful experiences interacting with the VPD. Either their cases were similarly ignored or diminished like Catherine’s or the Police had no sensitivity to the trauma of the victim’s experience and often ended up intimidating these women with tones better suited to interrogating suspects than interviewing trauma victims. It became our intention to speak directly to the Vancouver Police board, share Catherine’s experience and the experiences of these other women and ask for structural re-considerations regarding women’s safety and the investigations that follow assaults. I talked to Catherine and she shared her whole story with me. We prepared to speak at the Vancouver Police Board meeting, a public meeting at which I have seen speakers present issues like: fireworks safety, public concerns about the proliferation of marijuana use, bike lane transit law enforcement, the ranting of angry anarchist, socialist, activists and more. So it was a shock to me when I sent my request to speak at the VPBM and after explaining our cause received this response from the board’s administrator Patti Marfleet:
“The matters you wish to speak about are matters that fall within the jurisdiction of the Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner (OPCC) and therefore would not be appropriate for the Board’s delegation process.
The Board has no authority over specific operational matters or complaints about the conduct of individual officers.
The concerns you raise would be most effectively addressed by filing a complaint against the VPD through the OPCC, an independent office for complaints against the police. The OPCC will review your information and determine whether there are allegations of misconduct against specific officers that should be investigated as a public trust complaint through the VPD’s Professional Standards Section.”
We appealed the denial and reiterated that in the intention of our request to speak, that our grievances are not with an individual police officer; they are with the systemic approach to women’s safety and the general attitude and approach to the investigation of sex crimes and violence against women. I pleaded that they reconsider. We were once more denied and directed to the Office of the Police Complaint commissioner, which exists as a filtering system for police complaints. When I contacted the Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner I was informed that my complaints fell under a “service and policy” complaint and would be directed, through the OPCC, to the Vancouver Police Board, who had already rejected our requests to speak or hear our justifiable grievances. So was to be done? I had already been told by the Vancouver Police Board that his is not their problem and I’d also been told by the Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner that should we submit a complaint it will be directed to the Police Board, the very organization who rejected our request to be heard in the first place.
In response to this bureaucratic cycle I wrote my local MLA Melanie Mark to inform her of the situation and request help. Two months later, after my letter had made it through several chains of people, I received a call from the Solicitor General’s office informing me that my best course of action was to take our cause to the Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner, who would then in-turn pass it on to the Vancouver Police Board. This was very frustrating. Why can’t we speak to the board directly? We live in this City. We pay taxes. Why is the issue of women’s safety and the transparency of the Vancouver Police Department such a taboo topic that we have been repeatedly sent in circles searching for someone official who will actually hear out our cause?
Catherine started doing her own research into the statistics of sexual assaults and how our police department handles them. An article she found was illuminating. In 10 years, there were 5200 reported sexual assaults in metro Vancouver. A quarter of these ended in charges being laid. Of that quarter charged, 2.9% alleged attackers were sentenced for their crime. This statistic is frustrating to read on its own, but Catherine went a step further to find out why so many cases like hers were barely worked on. She spoke to the Sergeant of the VPD Sex Crime unit and found out that not only were there 6 people maximum assigned to the sex crime unit at a time, there were only 2 detailed there at the time she was attacked. She also learned that the officer that had been assigned her case was not even truly training to be a sex crime detective, he had been placed there because he was too injured to be on patrol and other investigators had been taken out of the unit and assigned to “bigger investigations”.
Catherine began looking into the departmental budgets and staffing for the VPD to understand how the sex crime unit is prioritized within the organization. After filing freedom of information requests, Catherine’s research was cut short when much of the information in her request was withheld by the VPD. The VPD would not offer their budgets or how many people manned each police unit for “strategic” security. We understand this policy regarding strategic units like gang and narcotics task forces, however most sexual assault is not a strategic orchestrated crime. It is unpredictable and savage. It damages the victim and our society long after the transgression had been committed. These damages are made more severe when our system of law enforcement minimizes the priority of such cases as well as the trauma of the effected individuals. Budgetary transparency must be assured if our protective institutions are to be trusted. This is not a tactical anti-gang task force whose movements must be kept secret: this is the safety and respect of our mothers, daughters and sisters. We feel sharing the budgets of individual departments does not compromise the integrity of the VPD’s strategic security however, by not doing so, it compromises the institution’s integrity and credibility.
There are 30-40 sexual assaults in Metro Vancouver per month. The VPD claims that they do not have the budget to fulfill their own DNA analysis requirements, this is why Catherine and other’s evidence is sent to labs on the other side of the country. On top of this, much of Vancouver’s DNA and evidence analysis is supported by the Provincial government, and under the BC Liberals, more and more support was withdrawn with every successful election. This lack of funding and priority is why 2.9% of those charged with sexual assault in Vancouver go to jail for it. Catherine and I posit the thought that if the VPD can afford a fleet of brand new Dodge Chargers, ATV’s for beach patrol, state of the art tools and technology alongside several SWAT level armored trucks, that one would think the VPD already had a budget and systemic hierarchy that prioritizes the safety and support of women and abuse survivors. To us public safety includes: timely DNA analysis, a staff of sex crime detectives with comprehensive psychological training, and sex crime unit with a staff size that reflects the actual number of reported sexual assaults per year.
Catherine and I have been considering what we should do next. We want to be heard and have our justifiable criticisms taken seriously. We want the Police to do a better job systemically, not just at the individual level. We want to be able to speak at the Vancouver Police Board meeting and have those who are supposed to serve and protect us, listen to us. Listen to women.
Who am I? I am Axel Matfin, a writer, an East Van community member, and ally for those who need help. I have years of experience working in the bar, nightclub, restaurant, and security industries along the way, I have interacted with the Police concerning manners of violence. I have spent years analyzing the structure and attitudes of VPD officers in the field. I have attended and spoken at the Vancouver Police Board meeting regarding community safety and the lack of social integration in East Van by the VPD. I am not an enemy of law enforcement, but I believe that rigorous and consistent reform and reinvention is required to meet the needs of the people in this 21st century metropolis. I do not care to be a figurehead nor am I a person who seeks self-aggrandizing attention, but I do understand that I have the responsibility to speak out when I feel that something is wrong. I believe that the VPD’s current institutionalized approach to engaging and communicating with victims of sex crimes, predominantly women, is fundamentally broken, and must be repaired. I believe that their investigation methods regarding these crimes are weak and not given the budget or priority that they deserve. I believe that the rhetoric and culture of the VPD in relation to these crimes is antiquated and completely devoid of empathy and sensitivity. I believe that the bureaucracy of the Vancouver Police Department prevents and discourages the public from interacting with their law enforcement officials. I see women, especially women of colour, living at the bottom rung of the economy, in need of Police aid, only to have their situations belittled, ignored, or minimized.
Less than a month ago I was tending a bar on the East Side and a VPD officer armed with baton, pepper spray, gun, and armored in kevlar came in, walked up to the bar and said: “I’m looking for a drunk Indian. I mean Native woman.” He didn’t offer any more details about the woman except that she might be wearing a high visibility construction vest and that she’d been missing for two days. This officer must not be aware that many Indigenous First Nations women of east Vancouver work in construction. He seemed tired. He seemed annoyed. He seemed bored. He seemed like he didn’t care. When I asked if there was anyone I could call if this particular woman was found, he shrugged and told me to call 911.
That lack of fundamental empathy in our peace officers is completely unacceptable. It is disgusting, and must change. Catherine and I are asking for your consideration and help. We seek policy changes from our Police. We would like to have our concerns heard and taken seriously by our governing body. We would like to speak directly to those in charge of these policies. We do not appreciate being passed from one institution to another, being sent back to the start of the line each time we do so. We want a straight answer. We do not understand why this very important issue was initially eschewed by the very avenue, the Police Board Meeting, that is supposed to give us the people, the taxpayers, the voters, an opportunity to participate in our democracy. Just after the year of #Metoo it is appalling that our concerns have been treated as a nuisance instead of a crucial part of our social dialogue.
Our fundamental complaints with the VPD:
- Lack of priority and budget given to the VPD Sex Crimes unit.
- Minimizing the severity of the victim’s trauma and actively telling victims to not speak out about their abuse publicly.
- Extreme lack of empathy and sensitivity displayed by officers who are interacting/interviewing those who are victims of sex crimes.
- Lack of organizational transparency, especially regarding the nearly $300 million budget of the VPD.
- Lack of public accessibility to our institution of law enforcement. If a citizen wants to speak to the police about matters of public safety that citizen should not have to go through the OPCC to do so. The Vancouver Police Board exists, in part, to publicly delegate the operation of the VPD and in doing so they are supposed to give the public an opportunity to engage in this process. They have failed to do so.
We want our concerns taken seriously. We feel that many other Vancouverites will feel the same way. Please share this article, file your own official complaint with the OPCC, look into the VPD stats for yourself or simply stand in solidarity with us in our quest to speak at the Vancouver Police Board Meeting.