Original Article: The Star Edmonton | Kevin Maimann | February 13, 2019
EDMONTON—The Alberta Council of Women’s Shelters is calling on police to stop withholding names of homicide victims.
The council released a six-page position statement Tuesday advocating for the release of victims’ names, specifically focusing on women killed in domestic violence incidents.
“If you don’t name domestic violence homicides and you’re only dealing with statistics and not real people, you don’t have that impact, and you lose the opportunity to educate the public about domestic violence and actually play a role in prevention,” executive director Jan Reimer said Wednesday.
The Edmonton Police Service has been criticized for opting not to release victims’ identities in multiple homicide cases in recent years.
When Ashton Lafleche was charged with assaulting his former partner and killing their two children in Edmonton in December, police refused to name him or the victims — even though their names were all published in publicly available court documents — saying it would serve “no investigative purpose.”
The ACWS report argues domestic violence is not a private family matter, but a widespread social issue, described by the World Health Organization as a major public health issue.
Failing to identify victims, the report argues, further stigmatizes family violence and fails to commemorate victims, contributing to “an ongoing silencing of the issue at the individual, community, and societal levels.”
Reimer said naming victims should always be the fallback, leaving room for exceptions in rare cases when needed for investigative purposes.
“Family know, their friends know, the schools know, the workplace knows. It’s not like this is a secret. It’s also important for the public to know,” Reimer said.
“There’s been many a shelter director who’s been told many a time, ‘If anything ever happens to me, please make sure that my story is told.’ That’s the other piece of it, women do want their stories told if something does happen to them.”
Reimer said families of victims often work hard to make homicides more public and change attitudes on domestic violence, by organizing marches, fundraisers and other efforts to ensure their loved one’s death was not in vain.
She said Indigenous communities in particular have put in “painstaking” work to compile lists of missing and murdered women.
“Another piece of that is if you hide it all away, it limits that public accountability. And the public may know things,” Reimer said. “If they’re told, that might be important, either for future prevention or police response or community response.”
Peter Jaffe, academic director of the Centre for Research and Education on Violence against Women and Children, said he would like to see a standard practice across Canada on releasing victims’ names, as policies vary from one jurisdiction to the next.
Last week, Saskatchewan’s government amended a regulation that had subjected police to freedom-of-information and protection-of-privacy laws and led Regina police to determine it could no longer routinely name homicide victims.
Saskatchewan Justice Minister Don Morgan said the withholding of names was an “unintended consequence” of new provincial privacy laws, and made the amendment to ensure police are, in fact, permitted to name victims.
Jaffe said police should have no reason to withhold names once they’ve notified next of kin.
“I think names should be public across the country. It’s important because other people may have additional information. They may be a former partner or a former professional who has information that may be helpful for the police in terms of their analysis,” he said.
Jaffe said it’s a delicate issue because privacy needs are being balanced with the public’s right to know, but naming victims can provide crucial information on how to prevent a tragedy in similar circumstances.
“You want to be aware of, did the victim or perpetrator in this situation reach out for help? Had the police been responsive, had local mental health agencies or social service agencies been responsive? What are the implications in terms of better public awareness or professional training across different sectors, like police and health care and social services?”
Research across North America suggests domestic homicides are the most predictable and preventable type of homicide, with numerous well-known risk factors that precede a killing.
Jaffe said everyone should be worried when there’s a homicide, because it should raise questions about public accountability for the systems involved — not to point fingers, but to find improvements in risk assessment, safety planning, and risk management.
He said refusing to name victims erodes the accountability that those systems, particularly the police, should have to the public.
“Hypothetically, in cases where the police knew more about the history and there had been warning signs and missed opportunities to intervene, you don’t want the people making the decisions about releasing names and details the same people who might be put under the spotlight as to what they could have done differently,” Jaffe said.
The Vancouver Police Department has a policy of releasing victims’ names, with “very rare circumstances” where identification is delayed for investigative reasons, according to VPD Const. Jason Doucette.
“We never want to live in a society where someone can be murdered in secret,” Doucette said in an email. “Releasing the names can assist in maintaining public safety and their level of fear. Homicide victims are not able to speak for themselves and we hope by sharing details of the offence, we will generate tips that could lead to the identity of those responsible for the death.”
Edmonton Police Service Chief Dale McFee, who was sworn in on Feb. 1, has said he will soon announce an independent review of EPS practices regarding the disclosure of homicide victims’ identities.
“The review will explore the balance of the requirements of the public’s right to know within the requirements of privacy legislation and the rights of victims and their families with what is in the public interest,” McFee said in a statement.
With files from The Canadian Press