The Sexual Assault Centre (Hamilton and Area) — SACHA has long been involved in the struggle for social change. Through our programming, services and education, we have engaged with community centred approaches to safety, and the importance of specialized support for marginalized community members. Recent incidents of anti-Black and anti-Indigenous violence by police and widespread protests have reignited an important conversation in our communities: how, if at all, can we reform policing as both a practice and institution in our communities? The most salient of these conversations has been the call to Defund the Police.
The Defund the Police movement has highlighted for consideration several approaches to reforming policing in Hamilton. Among these approaches are greater involvement by civilians in decisions about the police budget, transparent statistics about interactions between police and racialized community members, and the divestment of taxpayer funding to community initiatives. Understandably, many community members have concerns about these ideas and the implications for public safety.
As we weigh in on this conversation we note that SACHA does work with the police in various capacities:
- Accompanying survivors to police stations — if survivors want to go: we do not tell them what to do either way
- The Director is a part of the Sexual Assault Community Review Team (SACRT) which reviews cases classified as unfounded and/or other categories to ensure police investigations are coded properly
- For 2019/2020, SACHA along with other members of the SACRT received a $1000 honorarium from HPS
- SACHA is a part of the Sisters in Spirit Committee in Hamilton which has police as members
- SACHA is a part of the Woman Abuse Working Group in Hamilton which has police as members
- SACHA is a part of the Women’s Services advisory panel to the Chief of Police
- Police are present at Take Back the Night (TBTN) march. Under the City of Hamilton SEAT application process, TBTN is considered a “parade” which requires police presence.
- When required, we contact 911 (including the police) when callers are in immediate danger (ex. when witnessing an assault on the phone, or if there is immediate risk of suicide)
SACHA’s commitment to sexual violence prevention and justice for survivors is inextricably linked to social justice and fostering safer communities. While we recognize the role that the police play in community safety and reporting of sexual violence, we have long acknowledged that many survivors have reservations and fears when interacting with police. As such, we welcome a critical and non-paternalistic conversation about the role of police that centers the experiences of survivors of sexual violence, rather than speaking on their behalf.
For many survivors, reporting sexual assault is a difficult process. In 2002 the Federal/Provincial/Territorial Ministers Responsible for the Status of Women noted that fewer than 10% of women report sexual assault to police. Underreporting of sexual assault is directly related to the fear of humiliation and re-victimization in the reporting process. As a result, many choose to be silent. We know that survivors are often members of vulnerable populations such as women who are racialized, who have disabilities, or who are of lower socioeconomic status. These are also populations that are often seen as less credible. Survivors of sexual violence deserve access to services where they do not feel intimidated or unfairly scrutinized.
Safer communities require investment into essential health and social services programming. Research supports that sexual violence is strongly associated with poverty. A 2001 Report by the Canadian Council for Social Development observed that women who already experience marginalization as a result of sexual violence, often experience compounded social exclusion on the basis racism, ableism, and other systemic barriers. Poverty is a gendered phenomenon that disproportionately affects women and is understood to be a factor for exposure to sexual violence. Lack of social power and lack of financial independence can trap women who are in abusive relationships. In 2018 the Ontario Coalition of Rape Crisis Centres addressed the impact of cutting the Basic Income Pilot on vulnerable women and survivors. Cuts to social assistance and the deferral of increasing social assistance exacerbates existing health and social issues, while increasing vulnerability and the risk of sexual violence.
For many community members, the police are not a symbol of safety or justice. It is very important to understand the colonial legacy of policing in Canada as we consider a way forward. The RCMP has played a significant role in the apprehension of Indigenous children to residential schools. Police have disproportionately targeted for carding Black and Indigenous community members. In Hamilton, the ACTION team scandal ticketed homeless people who they knew had no means to pay. These experiences highlight for many the ways that policing criminalizes racialized bodies and the poor. Many individuals with mental health and addictions issues are also the target of police focus. These populations would benefit from health and social support, rather than the punitive practices that emerge when illness is criminalized.
It is important to clarify some of the misinformation that is hampering important conversation on this. It should be understood that the Defund the Police movement is not about the abolishment of police. It is primarily concerned with the reallocation of resources, a restructuring of police duties (which includes a re-evaluation of what is criminalized and why), and redefining the scope of other professional institutions to take over some of these duties. At SACHA we welcome a future where community safety is prioritized and where the voices of survivors are elevated. The conversation to defund the police is an important one that should be undertaken with attention to the vulnerable communities who will most be affected by these changes.
A better world is not possible if we do not envision it. As such, we want to center the following considerations:
- We envision a future where Black liberation and Indigenous sovereignty leading the path to community governance are centred.
- We envision a society where all individuals are supported to develop their full human potential and thrive.
- A society without oppression, that embraces diversity and acknowledges the strength of inclusivity. A community that accepts the challenges presented of constantly adjusting to accommodate rather than assimilate.
- We invite the community to imagine new systems to have in place without the police, alternative forms of justice for survivors (who often already do not trust the police nor the current criminal justice system to keep them safe).
- We need to allocate funding to Shelters and Sexual Assault Centres and consult with their staff who are experts on safety planning and working with survivors on staying safe: places that promote empowerment, where creativity is embedded in healing vs. the power allocated by charges that get decided by “evidence”.
We want to thank the community members and organizations who are pushing forward on this serious conversation while centering the issues of racism, white supremacy, and police violence. Change is possible and necessary. We invite community members to think critically and envision a better way forward.
SACHA Staff and Management Committee