Yellowknife RCMP, who put sex assault victim in cell, say 'things have changed'
The commander of Yellowknife's RCMP detachment defended his officers' decision to lock up a female sex assault victim, adding services available had since improved and a repeat was highly unlikely – but still possible.
In an extensive interview with Cabin Radio, Insp Alex Laporte said: "We do understand and believe that victims of crime should not be in police cells.
"We feel we are now better-equipped to consider all avenues and possibilities."
A woman sexually assaulted in an attack behind Yellowknife's cinema in May 2017 was locked up in an RCMP cell in the immediate aftermath. The detachment maintains this was not a desirable option but a decision taken for her safety as "the best course of action at the time."
The incident was drawn to the public's attention when Judge Garth Malakoe, on August 9, said police “should have to explain” why the victim – who cannot be identified under a publication ban – was arrested and held in a cell overnight.
RCMP subsequently conducted an internal review, releasing a summary of that review's findings on the same day Wade Kapakatoak was sentenced to two years, less a day, in jail for carrying out the assault.
In that summary, police said no disciplinary action would be taken against officers involved in locking up the woman. Julie Green, the MLA for Yellowknife Centre, is since reported to have sternly criticized that response – calling the force's decision to investigate itself "completely outrageous."
However, the Yellowknife Women's Society told Cabin Radio it believes RCMP are "very open," are working collaboratively with outreach services in the city, and are making considerable progress.
"At the time [of the incident], there really wasn’t a lot available," the society's executive director, Bree Denning, said on Thursday.
"Now we have the sobering centre, we have the outreach van, and those services can come together to assist.
"I’d still love to see more be done – I’d like to have the services come to the women at the centre, so that someone doesn’t need to go to the hospital after a sexual assault. We are not there yet. That said, we have made progress."
Laporte, outlining his detachment's review into its officers' conduct, said RCMP had not been able to convey to the court – and judge – the full circumstances of what took place, though he did not provide exact details. The appeal period following Kapakatoak's sentencing remains active.
"The suspect was located promptly and arrested. We had a few members who attended to the victim, who found an individual who was under the influence, responsive to our members, however, uncooperative," said Laporte.
"Members, in assessing that individual, did not notice any injuries. They asked if there were any injuries, and the answers were no. We also had a difficulty in establishing the identity of the person: the name that we had received was not matching the individual.
"The members had a victim – an alleged victim, at the time – who does not want to cooperate, has limited ability to provide information given their state. The members were faced with a decision as to how can we provide a safe place for that person? How can we care for that person? What are our authorities at this time?
"I know the courts mentioned going to the hospital. This is something they had assessed at the time. In their determination, the best course of action with what they were facing was to take custody of that person and bring them to a safe environment, so that they could get some rest and allow us to pursue some services when that person was in a better state."
Laporte said the victim declined initial offers of support and services while in police custody.
"I believe we were faced with a unique set of circumstances," he continued. "We do understand that taking someone into custody in that set of circumstances appears insensitive, but the members were guided with the facts in front of them and ensured that person was safe, that night.
"We carried on as soon as possible … with offering victim services to that person, as soon as we could. We talked to that person about having a medical examination done to support the investigation. These are avenues, based on the decisions made by that person, that we could not pursue at the time, unfortunately, to a certain extent.
"At the end of the day, we had a successful prosecution of a horrible crime that cannot be tolerated."
Laporte believes an increase in services available within the city, and strengthened partnerships with those services, make it unlikely anyone in the same situation now would end up in a cell.
"We have had to take action and bring people to a safe place in other types of occurrences in the past, so this is why I am reluctant or not willing to say this will not happen again, because every situation is unique," he said.
"However, we now have the outreach van, the day shelter, the sobering centre. We are evolving to provide better care for individuals in need.
"I am very confident that although we may face a unique situation again, my members are exhausting those avenues now to make sure that victims and other individuals who need those services are serviced."
Denning said: "I would be really disappointed if that happened again. I hope the information is available to anyone encountering a victim of sexual assault, so they know the outreach van, the women’s centre, and the sobering centre are options.
"I am positive that person was frightened and confused, and having someone in uniform in front of them was probably quite intimidating.
"I hope if that happens again, RCMP would reach out to the street outreach van, and have those staff come and try to support that person – whether they wanted to go to the hospital or shelter or wherever they wanted to go, make that option available to them."
'We have learned'
The woman involved in the May 2017 incident is Indigenous. Several Yellowknife residents contacted Cabin Radio to question whether a white woman in a similar set of circumstances would find herself in an RCMP cell.
"We take pride in providing professional policing services that are bias-free," responded Laporte.
"We are in the North. A large number of the population is Indigenous. We have learned. Our training curriculum has trained to provide our new recruits with enhanced cultural awareness of the challenges Indigenous populations are facing, so it starts early now in someone’s career.
"We expose our employees regularly to cultural awareness camps and we hold our members accountable to their actions and accountable to our core values, regardless of race, gender, and orientation. This is our aim and I am satisfied we have a group of people here who are acting that way when responding to calls.
"We recognize the mistakes of the past and the gaps of the past. We want to do better, and we will do it in partnership with the right services for the people who need those services. Things have changed quite a bit."