Broken trust: Indigenous women report cases of police misconduct

Lauren says she was stopped by the Prince Albert Police Service in 2014. It seemed, at first, a routine traffic matter – licence, registration. She says she asked why the officer was stopping her.

“Can we deal with this in my car?” he asked, according to her account.

“I said I’m not going to leave my baby in the car. He started grabbing at my ear through the window. I started screaming. He started hitting my shoulder—I guess so I would let go of the steering wheel.”

Lauren, not her real name, is one of 64 Indigenous Saskatchewan women interviewed by Human Rights Watch last year. The organization just published a report documenting alleged cases of police misconduct and abuse. The interviews reveal a frayed relationship between indigenous women and police services across the province.

In response, Police Chief Troy Cooper said he will consider forming an advisory committee to look into the report.

Indigenous women and girls are particularly vulnerable to violence. As a national inquiry gets off to a rocky start, Canada continues to grapple with the memory of the hundreds of missing and murdered indigenous women detailed in police databases. In Saskatchewan, the report notes, 55 per cent of female homicide victims are Indigenous. They are about seven times more likely to be murdered than other women.

Those women should be able to count on police protection. But the 64 women who spoke to Human Rights Watch don’t see it that way. According to the report, a long history of racism, discrimination and abuse has left a “climate of suspicion.” There is a “widely-held belief,” the report said, that police specifically target Indigenous people. Worse, these 64 women say they’ve experienced or witnessed victimization at the hands of the officers sworn to protect them.

The women each allege abuse, excessive use of force, sexual harassment, or invasive body and strip searches by male officers. Only one woman, Lauren, made public allegations against the Prince Albert Police Service. Others faulted RCMP officers or municipal police in Saskatoon and Regina.

Sharon – again, not her real name – said that Regina officers slammed her head against the sidewalk during an arrest. She said she left with a broken nose and two black eyes. Linda said that Regina police “twisted her arm so aggressively during arrest that she can no longer bend it, comb her hair, or put on a bra.” Other women reported cases where police called to investigate domestic violence ended up arresting the victim – in one incident, reportedly, because her cat had been at large.

Many of the cases allegedly occurred during calls for public intoxication. One woman, referred to as Elaine, said she witnessed a particularly egregious case in Saskatoon. A woman in a neighbouring cell was brought in drunk.

“She didn’t know what was going on,” Elaine said. “The police officers stripped her. They took her pants, her shirt, her bra. It was cold. She was screaming because they pepper sprayed her. When they threw her in the cell you could hear a thud.”

According to Elaine, the police shut off her water.

Human Rights Watch said that, in every jurisdiction they researched, they found reports of male officers subjecting women to “degrading and abusive body and strip searches.” In total, they documented eight such incidents – including Anne, who complained about the conduct of the RCMP.

“They would not wait for a female to search me,” she said. “I did not have a weapon or anything. I ended up in the drunk tank with just my bra and shorts. Left all night. It was cold.”

Several other women reported that male officers forced them to remove their bras. One said her breasts were basically fondled by a policeman.

Police Chief Troy Cooper fielded questions from the researchers. He told them that the Prince Albert Police Service arrests about 3,000 people for public intoxication every year. He also suggested that the service has had difficulty in recruiting female officers. Still, he said, they try to ensure that female officers conduct searches on female suspects.

“For the most part, we do have a female on each patrol shift,” he said. “If not, we always have a female matron on staff and that matron is doing the search if there’s no female officer available.”

In a press release, Cooper acknowledged the historical injustices detailed in the report. But he said the Prince Albert Police Service is moving in the right direction. Prince Albert, he said, is “different” from other communities Human Rights Watch studied.

“When Indigenous women here are victimized they are not a minority statistic, they are our family members and our neighbours,” the chief said in the release. “Many members of our service are Indigenous, so this issue is near to the organization.”

He lauded the force’s female elder and the resources dedicated to indigenous women and families in the victim services unit. But the press release also raised the possibility that the chief might go further. He said he’s considering forming a committee of local Indigenous women, who will “review the report and provide local feedback and recommendations.”

The Human Rights Watch report came with its own recommendations. It notes that police forces in Saskatchewan are largely responsible for policing themselves. Civilian bodies can investigate in some cases, but can’t impose sanctions. The report called on the province to form an independent special investigation unit for allegations of serious police misconduct. It also recommends more detox and alcohol management programs to reduce reliance on the drunk tank for public intoxication cases.

For police services, the report stressed the need to ensure women aren’t humiliated during searches. It said male officers shouldn’t be conducting body searches of women or girls, except in “extraordinary circumstances.” It also said that the police should avoid ordering women to take off their bras, unless there’s credible evidence that it’s absolutely necessary for their protection or to collect evidence.

To prevent the kind of abuse detailed in the report, Human Rights Watch said that police forces should make sure they have enough female officers to conduct searches and stand in during interrogations of female detainees. They also called for better training and for updated policies on domestic violence.

A lot is riding on those changes, Human Rights Watch said. Violence against Indigenous women is still an epidemic, but the report suggests many are reluctant to call the police for help. They just don’t trust they’ll be taken seriously, or even that they’ll be safe.

“When women choose not to report crimes because of their mistrust of the police,” the report said, “this perpetuates impunity for perpetrators of violence against Indigenous women.”