Ottawa Citizen
Wednesday 16 December 1998

Wife's 'hissy fit' starts domestic court hell

Dave Brown
The Ottawa Citizen

John Major, for The Ottawa Citizen / Chris John is not a violent man. As arguments with his wife Katey escalated, he would respond by withdrawing, not by physically abusing her. But he was charged, and convicted, of assaulting Katey after she called police in what she says was a fit of temper. Both Chris and Katey, above, deny he was violent, but he felt the easiest way to end the immediate crisis was to plead guilty and get an unconditional discharge.

On Oct. 18 last year Katey John, in the middle of what she calls "one of my hissy fits," called police. "All I wanted was for somebody to come here and talk to us."

What she got was a SWAT team in battle fatigues with machine-guns and all the accompanying shouts and threats. Over her objections, she watched as her husband Chris was handcuffed and hauled off to jail.

"I no longer had input. Nobody would listen to me. When I tried to talk to anybody, I felt totally intimidated. The police and prosecutors took over my marriage and my life."

Chris and Katey John were celebrating on Dec. 2. It marked the end of his year as a convicted criminal, when he was pegged as a wife-beater, and his restoration as the gentle man he always has been. He still doesn't feel totally safe in his wife's company, but he's working at it. They have been living apart since the raid.

Mrs. John is one of a dozen women who have complained to me about their experiences in the new domestic court system. Chris John calls it "women's court." After the SWAT team handcuffed him and placed him in a police cruiser, he says, "everybody I talked to after that, with the exception of my lawyer, was a woman."

Louise Dupont is one of the court's two prosecutors. Since its startup in February, she says domestic court has proved itself as an effective way to control male violence. She rejects the suggestion that her role as prosecutor is to prove the charge, not help the couple. "My job is to present the evidence, fairly, to a judge."

Defence lawyer Karen Ann Reid works the same court. Her view? "It's an insult to women everywhere to assume that they are always victims."

The state, in a well-intentioned move to stop violence against women, has taken over the domestic dispute. Zero tolerance has become the battle cry, and although Staff Sgt. Tim Armour, head of the Ottawa-Carleton police spousal assault unit, says arrests are not made without reasonable and probable grounds, many disagree.

One of those is lawyer Reid, who says she sees many cases where grounds for arrest were, "let's say, suspect."

Police officers not connected to the spousal assault unit say when they answer a domestic call, they go with the intention of arresting the man. They ask for anonymity because their jobs would be at risk. The safe course, they believe, is to bring the man in and let the detectives in the special unit sort it out.

It almost always means that the man is going to spend a night in jail, and that has to be justified. Moving them to court and formally charging them provides that justification.

"He threatened me" is probable grounds for arrest if said by a woman. If a man tells an officer that another man threatened him, and he denies it, the officer doesn't have reasonable and probable grounds unless there are witnesses.

An argument can be made that the Charter rights of half the population are being violated.

Katey John called the police general number and wanted to talk to an officer. "Chris isn't a violent man. He's the opposite. He refuses to fight. We were arguing and he went to a room and wouldn't open the door. I didn't know what he was doing there, except it was his way of fighting, and I wanted somebody to come and help end the fight."

She says she doesn't remember details in full, because she was upset and angry. She realizes now she answered questions that triggered the armed response. In the over-protective temper of the '90s, the dynamics changed from a request for a referee in a domestic dispute to justifying a full-fledged armed raid that terrified the John family, including their three children.

The tactical unit that hit the home searched it and removed anything that could be considered a weapon, including camping equipment. Chris owns a bow, and it would appear in records twice as a "crossbow."

Chris was off to spend a night in a police cell. "I was in my bike shorts and freezing. I didn't get a blanket or mattress. I was supposed to sleep on a sheet of steel."

Meanwhile, back at the Bayshore home, Const. Kim Brigden sat with Katey and helped her get it all down on paper. "I was blathering," says Katey. When finished, there was enough to lay five charges, including assault (with a deodorant stick) and being a public danger with a "crossbow."

During the blathering, Katey mentioned an earlier incident when Chris, backing out of an argument, went into a room and pumped up the volume on the stereo system. She went into the room and cranked up the volume beyond capacity, trashing the system. He then threw a deodorant stick that hit her hand. That's assault.

There were delays in getting Chris in front of a judge, and he had to make a second trip to the courthouse. As a teacher, a computer whiz and a man never in trouble before, the ride in the police wagon was his only experience around real bad guys.

What he remembers most is the smell. "There were six of us jammed in and the huge guy beside me had fought with five police officers." The man had worked up a sweat and hadn't had access to deodorant.

When asked about this case, Sgt. Armour replied: "Be careful. You're dealing with a man who pleaded guilty to a criminal charge of assault."

Chris John says he had no choice. His lawyer was able to get the charges down to one of assault. The choice now was a trial that would cost $5,000, or a guilty plea that would get him out and home with an unconditional discharge. The cost would be $1, 200. "My guts were in knots and I was living on antacids. I had to get it over with."

Six weeks later, on Dec. 2, 1997, he stood before Judge Jean-Marie Bordeleau and was given an unconditional discharge. The judge took the unusual step of eliminating one of the conditions. He said Chris John was obviously not in need of the usual mandatory anger management courses.

Up to this point he was under a restraining order and had to stay away from his home and family. It was lifted, but he was afraid to go home. For one year he would carry a criminal record for assault. It would be struck from the record after a year.

Another hissy fit and he could expect an even tougher response, because a police computer check would see a violent man.

"When you've had a machine-gun aimed right at your face by an angry man screaming at you -- well, it leaves an impression."

He's still not comfortable. Although the criminal record disappeared Dec. 2, he knows it's likely he's still in police computers. He's afraid of another over-reaction.

Part of the domestic court plan is the Partner Assault Support Team (PAST). When we talked, neither Chris nor Katey had heard the term, or were aware they had dealt with it. Its members include the two prosecutors who work that court, Ms. Dupont and Cathy Kehoe, and Cossette Chaffe, who heads the victim assistance program. The couple says each was individually advised to seek counselling, but not together.

Says Katey: "Cathy Kehoe told me we could not be in the same room together and if we were, we could expect further charges. I was beginning to see the whole process as something intended to make my husband, a wonderful guy, look like a monster, and tear apart our marriage."

"We found our own counsellor," says Chris. "I learned my method of walking away from a dispute was passive-aggressive. In any marriage there are bound to be flare-ups, and I think we've learned how to handle them. Number 1 is stay away from the telephone."

They also went through medical examinations and believe an adjustment to Katey's prescription drugs will ease or eliminate the hissy fits.

Now that he's officially no longer a criminal, Chris admits they broke the restraining order that was supposed to keep them apart until the court process concluded. The night of the day he got out of jail, using an intermediary, they met in a dark playground. They decided then to work through the crisis.

There's one more step to take. Chris is looking for a new job in a new city. His criteria: "Any place that doesn't have a women's court and zero tolerance."

Prosecutor Dupont says the domestic court is just like any other court. The same rules apply.

What nobody in the system seems to see is that if men want to go home, they must plead guilty. It saves time and money and lifts the restraining order. That guilty plea will go into statistics as another case of male violence against women.

- - -

The Johns weren't the first family to be raided by a SWAT team. Sept. 17, 1997, I was invited to a home on Northwestern Avenue by an angry mother who asked me to "come and see what they (CAS) have done to my daughter." The girl wasn't in the room when I arrived at 8:30 p.m., and her mother outlined the problem.

The family's 15-year-old daughter had announced she was pregnant and wanted her boyfriend to move in. After a stormy shouting match, she went to the CAS and reported she was being abused.

A social worker passed that information to police. The father has a criminal record. At 11 a.m. July 17, two SWAT teams hit the house, front and back, and dragged out dad.

After an interview at police headquarters, detectives accepted his explanation and released him. He was home two hours after the full bore raid. Nobody said oops, sorry about that. He wasn't even offered a ride.

The fact that police couldn't make a case didn't deter the social worker. On Sept. 5, he went to the children's school and picked up the six-year-old daughter. Teachers and the social worker assured her she was just going for a little ride, but she went into a foster shelter for four days.

Her 13-year-old brother recognized the CAS worker and got chippy. He said, in effect: Nuts. If he needed help he would ask for it.

He refused to go. It took two uniformed police officers to wrestle him down and cuff him in the busy lunch-break school yard. He too was home in four days.

After giving me that information, mother told her son to get his younger sister. When the girl walked into the room and saw a strange man, she flew sobbing into her mother's arms.

The CAS has declined an invitation to open and discuss this file.

With Ottawa-Carleton police feeding 120 men a month into the domestic court process, and with restraining orders keeping them away from their homes, the flow of women in need of shelters should be slowing down.

Instead, shelters are reporting they are busier than ever. But who checks that information?

Tomorrow: A peek inside a shelter.


Copyright 1998 Ottawa Citizen