Sask. police using new checklist to assess risk in domestic violence calls

Original Article: Stephanie Taylor  |  CBC News  |  June 14, 2018  |

The executive director of the Saskatchewan Police Commission is hopeful a recent policy shift will improve how police respond to domestic violence calls.  

The change includes officers having to fill out an eight-question risk assessment checklist developed by the Ministry of Justice, which is new for agencies such as the Saskatoon Police Service. 

This year, municipal police agencies in Saskatchewan came under a new standard policy around intimate partner violence.

The policy is not new per-se, but is a thorough amendment to what was in place before this year, explained executive director Richard Peach.

"Old policies tended to be police-focused and we all recognize that that's not the most effective way to address fundamental social issues. So the new policy is very much multidisciplinary, is very much collaborative and is very much focused on early intervention and protective measures."

Peach said the change was spurred by a report published by the University of New Brunswick and The Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police. Among other things, the report made recommendations when it comes to the police response to domestic violence. 

Focus on police collaboration 

The commission began developing its new policy in fall 2016, working with the Saskatchewan Association of Chiefs of Police.

Adopted in January, the new policy lays out standard procedures around an initial investigation, charges, interviewing and release, with an emphasis on collaboration. 

"Essentially what the policy requires services to do is to inventory what assets they have in the community and then utilize them as appropriate, so it will vary from community to community depending on community size, community capacity," Peach said.

Crystal Giesbrecht, director of research and communications with the Provincial Association of Transition Houses and Services of Saskatchewan (PATHS) — which was initially unaware of the change — applauded the commission's direction for police to partner with different agencies.

PATHS pleased dual charging to be avoided

PATHS had previously called for a standardized police response to domestic violence to ensure consistency across the province, especially around tools for risk assessment. 

Giesbrecht said that collaboration leads to better information sharing, which in turn can help create a safety plan for victims or evaluate risk. 

"We're not going to be able to reduce our high rates of intimate partner violence in this province without government and policing and community agencies all working together," she said.

Giesbrecht also noted the framework spells out that every domestic violence call should be recorded whether or not charges are laid, and that responding officers should avoid charging both a victim and an alleged preparator without consulting with a supervisor. 

"If dual charging becomes the default what can happen is officers will go to a scene, say this is hard to sort out, I'm not sure who is the primary aggressor and who's the victim. We'll charge both, they'll sort it out in court. And sometimes that does happen," she said.

If a victim is charged as an aggressor they may not receive the help they need, such as a safety plan, Giesbrecht said. That could lead to them hesitating to call police the next time they're experiencing violence.

Police to fill out risk assessment in every call

The largest police organizations in Saskatchewan currently have existing practices in place to deal with domestic violence incidents, which includes required training of officers. 

Saskatoon Police Service superintendant Mitch Yuzdepski said the force incorporated the changes called for. He said the biggest shift was the introduction of a formal risk assessment checklist.

A Ministry of Justice spokesperson says research for the checklist involved looking at similar assessment tools across Canada and consulting with Western University as well as the Canadian Domestic Homicide Prevention Initiative. 

The province says the police agencies helped develop the checklist. Yuzdepski said Saskatoon police officers piloted a draft version of the checklist for a few weeks last year and provided feedback. 

Although Yuzdepski said some of the form's questions around drug and alcohol use were already being asked by police, but believes the checklist will help with risk assessment. 

"Especially when you look at preventive measures it becomes a little bit more of an intuitive tool, especially when there's data collected across the province and it may lead to different types of intervention."

A spokesperson with the Regina Police Service said it received a draft form of the policy last fall, and is in the process of amending its own guidelines for responding to intimate partner violence.