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Wife Assaut as a Crime

The Perspectives of Victims & Police Officers on a Charging Policy in London, Ontario, from 1980-1990

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

Peter Jaffe, Deborah Reitzel, Elaine Hastings & Gary Austin (1991)


This research project was made possible through the support and funding of the Department of Justice Canada, Solicitor General Canada, Ontario's Ministry of the Solicitor General, and the 90 victims of violence who were willing to tell their stories.

This study addressed the effectiveness of laying charges in cases of wife assault when the police have reasonable grounds to believe that an assault has taken place. It is a continuation of a previous study which examined the same topic at an earlier date (Burris & Jaffe, 1983; Jaffe et al., 1986). In this study, the policy was assessed by interviewing 90 women in London, Ontario, who had been physically abused by their partners and received one of three interventions: (1) police intervention/charges laid; (2) police intervention/no charges laid; (3) no police intervention/no charges laid. The effectiveness of the policy was also assessed by examining police data on the number of charges laid and a survey of officers attitudes in regard to the importance and impact of the directive to lay charges in cases of wife assault.

Findings

1. Response of the Police to the Charging Policy

Results suggest that the charging policy was implemented in a dramatic fashion by the London Police Force. In 1987 and 1988, London police officers laid a higher percentage of charges in wife assault occurrences compared to the provincial average (65% in London versus 47% provincially and 71% in London versus 51% provincially for 1987 and 1988 respectively).

Furthermore, the percentage of wife assault charges laid across the last decade by the London Police Force has increased considerably. In 1979 (pre-policy), police officers laid charges in only 3% of the occurrences involving wife assault. By 1983, this figure was 67%, and as of 1990 the figure had risen dramatically to 89%. In contrast, other jurisdictions show lower charging rates during this period. For example, Royal Canadian Mounted Police data indicate a charging rate of 51% between 1985 and 1988 (Williamson & Meredith, 1990) and a Toronto Police Force study found a 31% charging rate for 1985-86 (Leighton, 1989).

This charging trend was upheld across the last four years. As well, officers' reasons for not laying charges, which related to victims' wishes not to lay charges, have been reduced from 18% in 1987 to 4% in 1990, reflecting the fact that officers are instructed to lay charges when there are reasonable and probable grounds to believe that an assault has taken place, rather than leaving the onus on the victim to lay a charge.

2. Police Attitudes Regarding Mandate

A survey distributed to 133 London Police officers in 1990 and 133 officers in 1985 examined officers' attitudes regarding the charging policy. From 1985 to 1990, one can see a trend that clearly indicates that police officers are now more supportive of the policy.

In 1990, more than one half (52%) of the officers feel that the policy is effective, compared to only one third in the previous survey. More officers now believe the policy helps battered women and may be effective in stopping family violence. In the second survey, police officers were more likely to say that the courts are supportive of this policy.

The most dramatic change is in the area of the officers' perceptions that victims are more likely to follow through when police lay charges compared to victims laying their own charges.

Most importantly, the majority of officers (i.e., two out of three surveyed) agree that this policy promotes an important message to the community.

The most progressive views about the policy were held by supervisory police officers and officers with four or more years of experience.

Police officers were asked to rank in order of importance factors that influence their decision to lay an assault charge. Overall, officers chose corroborating evidence as the number one factor, with willingness of victim to testify and seriousness of victim injuries as being secondary factors. It is interesting to note that the more junior officers relied on the willingness of victims to testify as a more significant first priority in their decision to lay a charge than did the more senior officers.

3. Response of Victims to Police Intervention

Overall, the victims who participated in the study indicated a high level of satisfaction with police response. Three quarters (74%) of the victims indicated that the police responded quickly, and 65% indicated that they were satisfied with the advice that they received. This figure is in stark contrast to the 1979 survey which found only 48% of the victims were satisfied with the police response. Most importantly, 87% of the victims from the present study said that they would call the police again.

Of those victims who expressed dissatisfaction, the following recommendations were made: officers should provide victims with more information related to court process and community services; officers should be more understanding; charges should have been laid; and, more protection is needed for victims.

The extent and severity of violence used by males against their female partners 12 months before the target incident (or assault) and 12 months after the target incident were summarized. In the majority of cases, there was a significant reduction in the level of violence after the police intervention.

The greatest reductions in violence, in the year following the target assault,occur if the police intervene and lay a charge.

4. Victims' Perceptions on Community Support

Victims in the study reported utilizing a wide range of supports, from friends and generic social service agencies, to specialized services for victims and perpetrators of violence (including the Battered Women's Advocacy Clinic, Women's Community House, Family Service London, Changing Ways, Police Family Consultant Service, Atenlos and the Victim/Witness Assistance Programme). Friends, relatives and family physicians topped the list for supports most commonly utilized.

Of particular note is the fact that, prior to the target assault, none of the specialized services for victims and perpetrators was among the top five most frequently used supports. It is encouraging to see that there was a trend towards higher utilization of these specialized services following the assault. Twenty percent of victims reported that police referred them to these agencies during the intervention.

The survey also indicated that victims have continued to contact the police for assistance on successive occasions. The frequency of calls to police increased following the target incident. This would suggest that victims do not hesitate to contact police repeatedly despite their knowledge that charges will in all probability will be laid. This information is important feedback for officers who have been concerned that the charging policy may discourage women from calling for assistance.

Overall, victims reported positively on community supports utilized. Specialized services such as Battered Women's Advocacy Clinic, Women's Community House and Family Service London were seen to be the most helpful.

The London Police were seen as helpful by 6 out of 10 victims.

5. Victim Experience and Satisfaction with Court Process

The court outcomes for wife assault charges in 1988/89 were compared to the court outcomes for 1983 and 1979. Only 11% of charges were dismissed or withdrawn in 1988 and 1989, compared with 16% in 1983 and 38% in 1979. The charges that resulted on a fine (44%), probation (46%), or a jail sentence (18%) have increased dramatically from previous years.

Although victims expressed a higher level of satisfaction with the court process in comparison to previous studies, some questioned the length of the court process. More than half (54%) of the victims were concerned about the length of time required to reach a final disposition for the charges. Half of the victims were worried about their safety during this period and one-quarter were actually threatened by their partners. A further 9% of victims were abused by their partners during the court process.

Recommendations

  • Feedback should be offered to the London Police on the successful implementation of the charging police

  • The research findings should be shared with other police forces across Canada

  • The research findings should be shared with police colleges and provincial justice institutes across Canada

  • Future research should be funded by appropriate federal and provincial government ministries to examine the following:

    • the responses of police forces in other communities in Canada

    • a comparison of various police interventions with other community support services

    • the special needs of visible minorities, and

    • the impact of the court on recidivism of wife assault

  • The present study reinforces the importance of public education and a high level of awareness on the part of front line professionals (e.g., family doctors, clergy) on the issue of abused women

  • The importance of specialized services that are geared to the needs of battered women is underlined by the high degree to which these services are considered "very helpful" by victims of violence

  • Canadian police forces should clearly communicate their charging policy on behalf of all victims of violence. Ultimately, the same community response to other social issues (e.g., drinking and driving) needs to be developed for violence against women.

  • Communities need to examine the level of support and protection available to victims before, during and after the laying of charges. The community response to victims should be a well-coordinated intervention (Prairie Research Associates, 1990).

References

Burris, C.A. & Jaffe, P. (1983).

Wife abuse as a crime: The impact of police laying charges. Canadian Journal of Criminology, 25: 309-18.

Jaffe, P., Wolfe, D., Telford, A. and Austin, G. (1986).

The impact of police charges in incidents of wife abuse. Journal of Family Violence, 1(1): 37-49.

Leighton, B. (1989).

Spousal Abuse in Metropolitan Toronto: Research Report on the Response of the Criminal Justice System. Ottawa: Solicitor General Canada.

Prairie Research Associates Inc. (1990).

Literature Review of the Manitoba Spouse Abuse Project. Ottawa: Department of Justice.

Williamson, S. & Meredith, C. (1990).

Study to Review and Analyse RCMP Data on Spousal Assault from 1985 to 1988. Ottawa: Solicitor General Canada.


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