First off, we understand that our position on this subject might not be popular with our colleagues in the legal profession, some of whom might have more faith in the institutions we work within. But today we feel the need to voice it nonetheless.
Events of the past few weeks have once again raised the question of the value of anonymous reports regarding experiences of police violence. Last week Human Rights Watch (HRW) released an 89-page report that documents the failures of, and abuse by, the RCMP in Northern British Columbia as recounted by 50 aboriginal women and girls they interviewed.
The report includes anonymous accounts of young aboriginal women being tasered and strip searched by male officers, as well as reports of aboriginal women being assaulted and raped by members of the RCMP. At a press conference last week, researchers commented that the women and girls they interviewed about their experiences with the police exhibited a level of fear “comparable to post-conflict situations, like post-war Iraq”.
Since the report was released, both the RCMP and Federal Government have called on individual victims to come forward and file formal complaints with the RCMP or the Commission of Public Complaints against the RCMP. RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson, told 29,000 members of the force in an email last week that he has tried to persuade alleged victims to come forward with names and wrote “don’t worry about it, I’ve got your back”. Stephen Harper told the House of Commons that anyone who has information about serious criminal activity should give the information to the police and as he says “just get on and do it”.
Last night the HRW author, Meghan Rhoad, met with women in Prince George, BC to assure them that she will not violate the anonymity of the women and girls she interviewed. She maintained that the RCMP did not need “further detail of individual allegations in order to address systemic issues”. Advocates at that meeting expressed that the Commission of Public Complaints against the RCMP cannot adequately deal with the allegations because systemic issues at hand include problems with the RCMP and problems with its oversight body. The argument is that existing accountability mechanisms do not work, women don’t trust them, and that they have not been proven safe for these victims.
This is a similar position we took when we asked the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) to undertake a public inquiry into the discrimination against Ottawa-area sex workers by the Ottawa Police Service over two years ago.
Our request to the OHRC was based on “The Challenges Report” published by Prostitutes of Ottawa/Gatineau Work Educate and Resist (POWER) stemming from 43 anonymous interviews with sex workers from diverse areas of the industry. In Chapters 5 and 8 of the POWER report, sex workers recount specific instances of violent abuse by the Ottawa Police and discuss how this abuse is aggravated by discrimination based on prohibited human rights grounds including sex, ethnicity and perceived disability. Although the OHRC expressed interest in our claims of systemic human rights abuses in Ottawa they urged individual sex workers to file human rights complaints against the Ottawa Police. These are women who are known to the police and who are at risk of being further criminalized and incarcerated. When presented with the option of filing a human rights complaint on their own and using their real names, not a single one of them took the OHRC up on their offer.
Last week the CBC reported on the results of a 2011 report from the Ontario Native Women’s Association. The report includes 17 anonymous accounts from women in Thunder Bay. The participants of this focus group also reported being sexually assaulted by police. Again, here the Thunder Bay police want names, and the women advocating on behalf of the victims cite fear of retaliation.
In order to protect victims of police or state violence, we can’t rely on the victims to expose themselves to further threats of violence or retaliation. The victims are telling us they don’t feel safe going to the police to report police violence, or reporting to the police oversight bodies who have thus far failed to hold police accountable for their violence. As the 19-year-old-Oji-Cree youth from Thunder Bay explains, “we need an alternative choice to policemen”.
And before my colleagues take to the comment section to tell me how I don’t understand the criminal justice system and how naïve this position is, ask yourselves whether you’ve ever been part of a social, ethnic, or economic group that has had a historic or current reason to fear the state or its law enforcement? Have you ever reported an assault or sexual assault only to be told by police that it was unfounded? Or have you experienced retaliation from a partner or an officer after trying to, in Stephen Harper’s words “just get on with it and do it?”
It is clear that creating an independent system for anonymous reporting of police and state violence would take thoughtful consideration and hard work. It is equally clear that police violence against highly marginalized populations continues and will continue to be dismissed or ignored without an alternative to the current systems in place. Though it is only one strategy in combatting violence and holding police services accountable for violence abuses of power, anonymous reporting would be a first step in giving voice and justice to communities who have long deserved both of those things.