Calgary Herald

Sunday 23 April 2000

Police train for domestic violence cases

Scott Crowson, Calgary Herald

Keith Morison, Calgary Herald / Calgary Police Service Det. Lynne Cunningham heads the domestic violence unit.

Early in her career, Det. Lynne Cunningham attended a violent domestic dispute that the victim said was prompted when she didn't have dinner ready on time.

"I had a hard time believing it because I had never been a victim myself," says Cunningham, who has been with the Calgary Police Service for 19 years.

"I've since realized that not having dinner ready was just a trigger for this guy, who was a walking time bomb."

Cunningham's misunderstanding of the situation was typical of most field officers on the street.

That's why the city police force established a domestic conflict unit in 1997. Its job is to review every domestic incident attended by police and intervene in the high-risk cases. When charges are laid, the unit follows the case through to the trial and provides support for the victim.

A more recent development was the training of 603 front-line officers so they are more sensitive to the warning signs and can provide information to the victim. Const. Jim MacDougall, a 20-year veteran, was in charge of the eight-hour sessions, which took place in January and February. He also trains interested groups outside the police force.

"It's restored my faith in the system," says Cunningham, who supervises the unit.

"We're not just trying to fix families, we're identifying this sort of abusive behaviour as criminal . . . Because the abuse happens behind closed doors, it's often dismissed by the public as a personal matter. But if the abuser did this outside the home, people would be outraged. The victim doesn't bring this on herself."

The detective notes that not all victims of domestic violence are women, but the overwhelming majority are. It involves not just married couples but common-law relationships, boyfriends and girlfriends, and parents and children.

"If the investigating officers ask the right questions, they connect with the victim," she says. "It's amazing how easy it is to connect. There's no typical situation, but if you demonstrate that you understand the cycle of abuse, people open up."

City police officers have been taught to look for evidence of trouble, assess the risk and, if necessary, offer the victim safety planning, such as information about shelters.

Officers assess the risk by looking at past behaviour, including criminal records and abuse of previous partners.

Escalating violent behaviour, psychiatric problems, addictions and access to weapons are noted. They also look at stressful factors, such as employment status.

The officers have also been instructed on the resources that are available. Women in peril are told about counselling services, shelters and other helpful information.

The domestic conflict unit now has 10 investigators. Every morning they review the incident reports from the previous day. Police are called to more than 900 domestic disputes a month.

"We have to be diligent. Our biggest worry is we don't want to miss the one that turns into a homicide," said Cunningham.

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