CATHERINE'S STORY

CATHERINE'S STORY

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On July 22, 2016, near my home in east Vancouver, I was violently thrown to the ground by a man who then attempted to sexually assault me. I fought back and he fled. After the attack I called the Vancouver Police Department. When the police arrived they questioned me to get every possible detail of my attacker and the incident, took my clothes for processing and told me that someone would be assigned to my case. A hat had been dropped at the scene of the attack and the VPD said they would test it for DNA and see if it matched anyone in their systems.

The next day I went to the police station, I gave a statement to the detective that had been assigned to my case. This is where the lie begins. Not until the following year did I find out that this man, that I was told was a detective, was not a trained Sex Crime detective, he was an injured patrol officer who was put in the unit because it was so grossly understaffed at the time. Knowing this information now, it is clear why my case was so mismanaged.

After being interviewed by this man I was told that an officer would get back to me later in the week to get a DNA swab from me. In the week that followed I repeatedly tried to get in touch with this detective, to no avail.

Frustrated and angry, I spoke out about my experience on social media on June 24th and within a day of the post I was I began to receive messages from the media. Shortly after I also got a call from the VPD. The VPD admonished me for speaking out about my assault and cautioned that if I shared too much publicly it might jeopardize my case.

A full two weeks after my attack, I met with a police sketch artist to create a
composite sketch of my attacker. I was not able to complete this process due to the fact that the trauma of the attack blurred and nearly blacked out the memory of the attack by this time.

Over the next week I received several phone calls from the detective. Always from an “unknown caller.” I began to realize that all the communication I got from the police were by phone. There was nothing in writing that I could rely on to keep track of what they had to say about my case.

The detective informed me that the police department would not be going public with my case because they didn’t want to create “white noise” in the media. As if sexual assault should only be made public on occasion; not every time that it’s reported. The week I was attacked there had been four assaults on women in East Vancouver, including mine. The descriptions given of the attackers by the women assaulted were completely different from one another. There were at least 4 separate men that had attacked randomly attacked women in the street that week. Only one assault was mentioned in the news. It disturbed me to know that our police department is hiding this kind of information from the public.

I felt I was being told to keep quiet about the investigation as well as the attack and that the police were more concerned about negative media attention on their efforts than they were on my case or solving it. I couldn’t understand why in the first week following the assault nothing was done or why it took almost two weeks to get a composite sketch drawn or DNA swab taken.

On August 24th I received a phone call from the detective in charge of my case stating that the DNA on the hat found at the scene matched with someone on their database. Only after this positive match did they then choose to send the jacket that I was wearing the night of the attack. The detective said that the Vancouver forensics lab was “backed up” so that was why they were only sending one item in at a time to a forensics lab in Guelph, Ontario.

I knew it would be another long wait before I heard anything about the DNA results from my jacket. It had been months since the assault and I was sure that my attacker hung around my neighborhood regularly, just by the way he walked down my block that night. From his past criminal record I was told that the VPD considered this man a “street bully” that moved around from place to place in my neighbourhood, just as I suspected - but stated that this suspect didn’t have a track record of attacking women, so the police “weren’t worried”. Immobilized by fear, it took me 4 months before I could walk outside at night by myself. I was worried.

I waited impatiently for the phone call to find out about the results and it never came.

By late October, after repeated attempts to reach the detective in charge of my case, I was told he had been reassigned back to patrol duty a month prior, and I was given a new contact number to the Sex Crime Unit. I immediately tried to get in touch with the new officer whom I was told had replaced him, with no success.

By December 2016, I still hadn't heard from the VPD. Persisting, several more phone calls revealed that my case hadn't been reassigned and had gone cold in the preceding months. I was told that it had essentially been closed since there had been insufficient evidence to link DNA found on my clothes with DNA found on the hat.

Days later, during a phone call with a sergeant of the Sex Crime Unit, I inquired as to why I had not been asked to look at a photo lineup, as they knew the identity of my attacker. He then told me that the subject related to the hat found at the scene “doesn’t attack women". 

Only a day or two later, the original detective in charge of my case (the one I had been told had been reassigned a month or more ago) called me and asked if I wanted to do a photo lineup and I agreed. Almost 6 months after the original attack, and only because I had to remind them that it hadn’t been done, I was shown a stack of suspect photographs. I couldn’t identify anyone with confidence. Once again I was made to feel I was wasting police time.

In May 2017 I went to the VPD Property Office to collect the items I was wearing the night of my attack. I discovered they weren’t all there. The clerk then told me that the original lead detective had never been a fully-fledged investigator. He was only in training. Over the next month I tried to get the rest of my clothing back. I was unsuccessful. More importantly I repeatedly tried to get some sort of resolution or closure from the VPD. I called everyone I had ever been in touch with but no one would return my calls.

There were 5200 reported sexual assaults over ten years in Vancouver. In only a quarter of these were charges laid, with only 2.9% resulting in attackers being sentenced for their crime. I spoke to the Sergeant of the VPD Sex Crime Unit once again and learned that a maximum of just six officers staffed this unit at any one time; when I was attacked they were down to two.

It was during this final conversation that I was told by the same sergeant that the officer assigned to my case was not training to be a sex crime detective. He was assigned to the unit while an injury kept him off active patrol. He was only given this role because the unit was in such dire need of staff. Those whom would normally be working in sex crime had been re-assigned to “bigger investigations” when I reported my case. The sergeant told me that this understaffing can go for weeks, sometimes even up to a couple months with so few people working in the unit.

I tried to determine the budgets and staffing of the various departments within the force to understand the priority the sex crimes unit was given. However the VPD would not release this information, even after I filed an information request, citing “strategic security” reasons.

As a result I met numerous women who had also been attacked. They had all
experienced similar treatment with the VPD. Their cases were ignored, their trauma dismissed, or they felt intimidated and revictimized by tactics better used to interrogate suspects.

My friend Axel Matfin, who was familiar with police bureaucracy, advised me to speak directly to the VPD  Board and raise with them the need to improve the practices and processes of the VPD Sex Crime Unit. When Axel asked to get my issue on a board agenda we were told:
“The matters you wish to speak to are matters that fall within the jurisdiction of the Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner (OPCC) and therefore would not be appropriate for the Board…The Board has no authority over specific operational matters or complaints about the conduct of individual officers…. The concerns you raise would be most effectively addressed by filing a complaint against the VPD through the OPCC, an independent office for complaints against the police. The OPCC will review your information and determine whether there are allegations of misconduct against specific officers that should be investigated as a public trust complaint through the VPD’s Professional Standards Section.”
However when we approached the OPCC we were told that my complaint fell under “service and policy” and the OPCC would direct the issue to the VPD Board which had already rejected our complaint. We were caught in a vicious Kafka-esque cycle.

We didn’t know what to do. Axel wrote to our MLA Melanie Mark. Two months later Axel received a call from the Solicitor General’s office. He advised us to take the case to the Office of the Police Complaints Commissioner who, we were told, would pass it on to the Vancouver Police Board. This was extremely frustrating. I felt that I was being blocked from presenting my case to the board personally.

Despite the obfuscations and blocks my case will finally be heard by the VPD Board on April 26th 2018 almost two years after I was assaulted.

Through this experience I have learned that things must be changed. The VPD must take reports of assaults seriously and have the funding and staffing to make thorough and timely investigations.

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