RCMP special unit tasked with sexual violence helps break the silence

Nearly three years in, the RCMP's made-in-Yukon unit to address sexual violence is making progress. May is sexual assault prevention month, offering up a chance to celebrate successes and take stock of challenges.

Nearly three years in, the RCMP’s made-in-Yukon unit to address sexual violence is making progress.

May is sexual assault prevention month, offering up a chance to celebrate successes and take stock of challenges.

“One of the traumatizing factors is dealing with police and we recognize that,” said Cpl. John Marinis, head of the specialized response unit.

“That’s the biggest challenge, gaining trust and getting people to interact.”

Rates of sexual violence in the territory still sit at around three times the national average, while only an estimated 10 per cent of sexual assaults are reported to police, according to Statistics Canada.

Since the unit’s inception in 2013, Marinis and his three plain-clothed team members’ full-time jobs are to handle and oversee cases involving abuse of women, children and the elderly.

“We try and reach out in a way that didn’t used to be,” Marinis explained.

The unit champions its flexibility to meet victims in a place and on conditions that make them feel safe. Their regular business hours allow them to work in collaboration with the extensive network of organizations that make action on these challenging files possible: women’s and aboriginal groups, victims services and the family and children’s services branch.

“The day-to-day police officer in a cruiser ‘on the watch’ is not accessible all the time. There’s a motor vehicle accident and they have to go. So this time commitment is a big component,” Marinis said.

The call to create this specialized unit was one of 33 recommendations in the 2011 report, Sharing Common Ground, based on a review of the police following the sexual assault charges of two RCMP constables in Watson Lake in March of 2010.

The unit’s list of duties is a long one. Alongside conducting complex investigations, they assist in similar cases remotely or in person across the territory, train other officers in interviewing the vulnerable and act as a review body to make sure all territorially developed protocols on vulnerable persons cases are being met.

They even host talks with various organizations about the legal maze of sex crime and prosecution.

“We do a lot of: ‘this is the reality,’” Marinis said.

According to Hillary Aitken, program coordinator of the Victoria Faulkner Women’s Centre, “We have seen that the work has helped. Knowing that there is an officer we trust to say, ‘Call this person, she’ll meet with you and explain the process,’ has proved incredibly valuable,” she said.

Success in these cases is inherently hard to measure, but the increased cooperation is celebrated from all sides.

“We can’t do it alone,” Marinis said.

“Where we excel is that these organizations have an awareness of the people they deal with day-to-day. They know what’s going on even if the person is not ready to report,” he said.

One new addition is third-party reporting. At the victim’s request, workers at the Kaushee’s Place women’s shelter can take down information about the suspect, location and any other details to create a generic report, leaving the victim unidentified.

They can even preserve evidence like rape-kits for up to six months to allow victims time to decide whether they want to go to the RCMP.

Though it’s still too early to judge success, Marinis says: “We wouldn’t have anything to begin with. This is the segment of the population who would not otherwise come forward to police.”

But resources and access remain challenges.

Barbara McInerney, executive director of Kaushee’s Place, noted the territory has only three transition houses, making access to critical front-line help difficult for women in isolated communities.

In addition, the RCMP does not replace officers on maternity leave, so the unit is currently down to three.

“This has a huge impact, as it reduces the capacity of the SRU by 25 per cent. That officer’s workload then falls to others. If they want to recruit more women then this is a fairly big disincentive,” Aitken said.

McInerney said this breeds discrimination against women.

“We’re certainly busy. Of course I could have lots more resources,” Marinis acknowledged.

Moving forward, all parties agreed increased awareness of who they are and what they do will only help further the cause.

“It does shift the way the RCMP responds. It would be great if we had this training for all officers but, for sure, the SRU is a great start,” Aitken said.

Contact Lauren Kaljur at

lauren.kaljur@yukon-news.com

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