Stalking Research Sparks a New Human-Centred Approach

The reception area of the police headquarters in Regina, Saskatchewan, hasn’t evolved much in the last 25 years. Citizens and victims of crime come in through the same door and approach the same desk. But something has recently changed once they reach that desk—a new human-centred approach aimed at better supporting victims of stalking, abuse, and violence.

In an interview with Evan Bray, Chief of the Regina Police Service, it was clear that a wide-perspective of insights from experts in the field of family violence coupled with the first-hand experiences of police officers and the insights gathered from stalking research done by Dr. Kimberly Zorn, were at the heart of what sparked this new approach.

The Research

The research, funded by Prairieaction Foundation, was unique: Dr. Zorn used a “narrative approach” to collect the stories of 16 women who were the victims of stalking within the Regina area.

The interviews were guided by three main research questions: what impact did stalking have on the women; what were the victim’s experiences with the Regina Police Service; what services and resources within the community did the women find to be helpful during different stages of their ordeal.

The approach allowed the women to share their full stories—from start to finish in their own voice and in their own way. In doing so, many themes came to light that were consistent among the victims—themes such as early red flags, how difficult it was to find the courage to leave, and then feeling helpless and unsupported by the police and the criminal justice system because leaving didn’t stop the behaviour.

We realized that our officers may be doing the best job in the world, but that the physical environment hasn’t changed in more than 25 years and it doesn’t provide a safe, comfortable place for victims of domestic violence, abuse or stalking.

Recognizing the Issues

“Kim’s research was very timely for us,” noted Chief Bray. “It was a topic we were already discussing, and her research showed that we could improve. It’s never comfortable uncovering shortcomings as an organization, but if you really want to get better, you have to start from those insights and build from there.”

The findings sparked an initial meeting that involved not only management, but frontline officers, desk workers, and people who work in specialized domestic conflict areas.

“We made a conscious decision as an organization to improve based on the feedback. The committee was struck and together as a group we looked at the process of engaging with the police from start to finish – from someone picking up the phone to call police to people walking into the police station to a court trial and beyond.

What we realized was that when you trace the process through our police service, there is about ten points where things can either stay on the rails or fall off the rails.”

Taking Action

Over the following six months, the committee focused on change and taking action, starting with the transformation of their front desk area.

Creating a safe environment for reporting sensitive topics

Putting themselves in the shoes of a person who has suffered from a domestic disturbance, the committee recognized how difficult it must be to come in to the station and share intimate, sensitive details while standing in an open environment. Now, instead of everyone who is reporting a crime using the same open space to share details, the Regina Police Service has developed a private, soft room that is more comfortable for the individual and allows them the ability to release their emotions and share their whole story without worrying that someone is overhearing them.

“We realized that our officers may be doing the best job in the world, but that the physical environment hasn’t changed in more than 25 years and it doesn’t provide a safe, comfortable place for victims of domestic violence, abuse or stalking.”

That was an important change for the Service and has made a significant difference for both the victims of the crime and the officers who are documenting the details.

“We’re in the process of doubling our police service in size. We bought a building across the street from us and we’re renovating our office to join the two. Our front desk is very likely going to move and we will change in a much more meaningful way, but already the addition of the soft room in our current location is creating a warmer, more caring environment for our citizens.”

Changing Policies

The second area of focus addressed the need to update policies to better support the victims in a timely and relevant way.

“Policy changes can make a big difference because they dictate action and behaviours at the Station. For instance, if an officer who is getting off work at 6 pm takes a call from a victim at 5:30 regarding domestic abuse or violence, policy ensures that a report must now be filed before they leave the office. These types of reports can’t wait for the next day because if there is another incident in that home at 1 am in the morning, it’s important for the information to already be in the system.”

Training and Education

“The other thing that we’re doing,” stated Chief Bray, “is providing training and education to all our frontline members on the effects of trauma on victims and what a trauma-led investigation or a trauma-led victim-centred approach looks like.”

“As police officers, we are trained not to just consider the facts of the case, but all of the details. We consider emotional state, eye-contact, the speed of which a victim reports an incident… all of it. And we question whether they are giving us 100% truthful information.”

However, as Chief Bray went on to say, it’s not always that black and white when it comes to victims who have been abused repeatedly—sometimes for years—and suffered physical, mental and emotional trauma.

“Sometimes a victim’s recollection of the facts may be skewed. That story then becomes their reality and the shame that comes with it and all the other impacts of victimization is very difficult for them to share. In some cases, they continue to try and protect the offender.”

This new approach to training taps into a deeper emotional intelligence and insight that gives officers a more robust perspective of the situation.

“I believe this training is going to make a tremendous difference. It’s difficult to shift an organization as complex and large as the Regina Police Service. But if we can change what’s in the hearts and minds of officers first, then we can change the organization.”

Providing Resources

A third area of focus has been to provide resources. The word Service is an important differentiator in today’s approach to policing, and the Regina Police has taken the opportunity to live up to their title by delivering a robust amount of information on their research-heavy website.

“Our website is a great communication opportunity for us. It allows us to link to resources, answer questions, and even educate victims with information about how to clear their browser history or quickly back out of a site. We recognize many people are worried about getting caught researching how to leave an abusive relationship, so we want to provide them with as much information as possible.”

Partnering with citizens and local advocates to create an ecosystem of care

Everyday in Regina, officers respond to an average of 17 domestic disputes, and those are only the ones that are reported. It is no secret that it’s a problem in the city and on a larger scale in the province of Saskatchewan. In fact, statistics show Saskatchewan to have among the highest rates of family violence in Canada.

These statistics coupled with Kim’s research have driven the fourth area of focus – a collaborative approach to solving the issues.

“If we don’t take a collective approach and look at things from different perspectives, nothing will change,” said Chief Bray. Working as an eco-system to dig deeper and understand all parts of the issues is a critical step that is necessary to creating real change.

“A great example of a community and police partnership is The Philadelphia Project where police and citizens work together to find new opportunities to break the cycle of abuse. The citizen group is provided access to random police reports which they review and make suggestions on how to do things betters. We’re slowly starting a process like that in Regina because we need to build trust with our people and be as transparent as possible. I’m proud of what we’re doing, but we still have a long way to go.”

Taking first steps in the Right Direction

Change starts with understanding, and Kim Zorn’s stalking research shone a spotlight on the very real, and very difficult realities that exist for so many women. It would have been easy for Chief Bray and the executive team at the Regina Police Service to close the proverbial door and say “…thanks for your input, but we’re good.” Instead, they found the courage to take a deep look at their processes, their behaviours and their policies and said—we can do better.

They also recognized it isn’t a solo act.

“We can’t do it all, but the police service can be leaders when it comes to taking steps in the right direction to drive change.” We are getting more involved within Regina and with Family Services and other groups and organizations.

“We now recognize that we aren’t just dealing with a crime – we’re dealing with lives, with families and with offenders who are also fathers and husbands. We need to work together to bring in every service provider and work together to create a holistic approach to this problem.”

“We need to ask different questions, more human questions, starting with ‘How can we have the best outcome for this family?’”

Thanks to a collective effort, that human-centred approach now starts the moment someone walks into the front desk area to share their story and ask for help.

“Whether an individual or an organization, it takes courage to shine a light on our flaws,” said Deb George, Prairie Action Foundation board member. “I commend Regina Police Service and Chief Evan Bray for validating the experiences of those interviewed for this research, acknowledging and taking responsibility for their shortcomings, and embracing the opportunity to make positive changes. While a police response to abuse and violence is essential, it must not overshadow the indication that we have a family in need. When the many options for community support are taken advantage of, the police response is only enhanced. By exemplifying how research can inform best practices, Regina Police Service is exhibiting true leadership.”

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