York helps train Toronto police officers in Sex Crimes Unit

In an act of reaching out to the larger community, two York professors demonstrated how academics and practice can intertwine in a mutually satisfying relationship.

Kyle Killian, a professor in the School of Nursing and Department of Psychology in York’s Faculty of Health and a researcher in York’s Centre for Refugee Studies, and Barbara Benoliel, a lecturer at York’s Schulich School of Business, Osgoode Hall Law School and in the Division of Continuing Education, donated their time recently to help train members of the Toronto Police Service’s Sex Crimes Unit.

“I think we’re all partners in the community. This is exactly the thing I think we should be partnering with between academic and practice,” says Benoliel. It’s an opportunity for both sides to learn.

Left: Jane Daines

The idea of the one-day symposium on Dec. 3 was to provide additional training and confirmation of current practices to members of the Sex Crimes Unit. Members of York’s Division of Continuing Education in the Atkinson Faculty of Liberal & Professional Studies, met with members of the Toronto Police Service to help develop and deliver the event, thanks to the efforts of Jane Daines, director of York’s Division of Continuing Education. Daines says it is part of the mandate of continuing education to forge partnerships with the larger community on a diversity of issues.

"In our increasingly complex world, the requirement for lifelong learning is important for people who want to continue to advance in their professions," says Daines. The Toronto police are no exception.

“The police came looking for outside experience, for our best practices, in how to handle victims of sexual assault,” says Benoliel, a mediator and facilitator specializing in organizational conflict, president of Preferred Solutions Inc. and the past-president of the ADR (Alternative Dispute Resolution) Institute of Ontario.

Killian spoke about the acute and long-term reactions of victimization and helpful attending behaviours during an interview with a victim. Victims can exhibit a range of behaviours and their reactions can differ depending on whether they are an adolescent, adult, sex worker or disabled person. “The police have to walk a tightrope. They have to extract information without upsetting the victim. When and how they ask questions makes a big difference,” he says. “We don’t want to reinjure or re-traumatize them.”

Right: Barbara Benoliel

Both Killian and Benoliel stressed the importance of avoiding questions that begin with "why" when interviewing a victim of crime. “The victim will already be engaging in a lot of self-doubt,” says Killian, a family therapist. They’ll be asking themselves why they didn’t fight harder, didn’t scream, why they didn’t do something differently or better. Asking "why" questions will just perpetrate this kind of internal questioning and blame.

Asking a "how" question is better, says Benoliel. “Asking, can you tell me how this came about or how did that happen?” Also, asking the victim to tell you more gives the victim an opportunity to guide the conversation. It empowers them to choose what they want to talk about. It’s important to give the victim choices where possible, such as choosing the environment in which they are interviewed or choosing whether they’d like a cup of coffee or tea. “Small decisions can at least make you feel you have some control over the situation as a victim,” Benoliel says.

The court process can leave a victim or survivor of a sex crime feeling like they’ve lost control again. They become a witness to a crime against the state, says Killian. If the police can prepare them about how the justice system works and help them to feel they have a voice in the process, it can aid the victims in rebuilding their lives.

At the same time, the police have to make sure the victims are telling the truth, says Benoliel. “They have to be aware that not every complaint is always a crime.” That was another topic of the day – addressing why a victim would lie.

Left: Kyle Killian

There was also discussion with the police about tapping into their own reactions to trauma. “We’re all trying to help and we all have different reactions. It helps them to relate to the victim and if they can acknowledge their own reaction, psychologically and emotionally, to trauma,” says Killian.

Some of the other discussions included victim interview skills and strategies, the psychology of a survivor, how to wait for the victim to be ready to disclose information in an interview, support for the victim, dress and deportment of the officer, empathy and preparing the victim for the process.

“They were really receptive to the training,” says Benoliel. “Some of the ideas were new to them and they were looking at that to see if they could incorporate them into their framework.”

As for Benoliel and Killian, they were impressed with the officers’ professionalism. They learned that the members of the Sex Crimes Unit are extremely sensitive to the issues involved, already have excellent practices in place and are doing their best within the framework allowed.

“They need to be commended for making a special effort to get further training,” says Benoliel.

Members of the University of Toronto, the University of Guelph and the Hospital for Sick Children also participated.

By Sandra McLean, YFile writer.