Pedestrians walk around George Street, in downtown St. John’s, Saturday, July 11, 2020. Nine members from Newfoundland and Labrador's provincial police force are now accused of sexually assaulting 15 women, says a St. John's lawyer, and women in the city are calling for smaller police budgets a wider community response. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Daly

Allegations of sexual assault against N.L. police breed mistrust among women

Allegations of sexual assault against N.L. police breed mistrust among women

ST. JOHN’S, N.L. — With a growing number of sexual assault allegations surfacing against officers with Newfoundland and Labrador’s provincial police force, women in St. John’s, N.L., are calling for cuts to police budgets and questioning who will protect them.

Lynn Moore, a lawyer who works with victims of sexual assault in the provincial capital, says 15 women have now approached her with allegations about nine Royal Newfoundland Constabulary officers. Eight of the officers identified have since retired and one remains on the force, she said in an email last week.

The underlyingallegation, Moore has said, is that on-duty officers would scout downtown St. John’s in their cruisers, offering women rides home. On July 21, Supt. Tom Warren of the RNC told a news conference the force was looking into sexual assault allegations against four officers. The news came less than three months after RNC Const. Carl Douglas Snelgrove was convicted of raping a young woman in her living room in 2014 after offering her a ride home from a downtown nightclub.

Moore has said the women who have contacted her are not interested, so far, in taking their claims to police.

The situation has women downtown on edge and questioning whether police have a role to play in keeping women and marginalized people safe in the city.

Ursula Dumaresque said when she heard about the allegations last month, “I felt absolutely terrified and betrayed and angry.” She works in a downtown bar and walks home late at night from work. When asked in a recent interview if she would ever approach an officer in his cruiser late at night for help, she said no: “I would not feel safe whatsoever.”

The Royal Newfoundland Constabulary has about 400 officers who serve the eastern Avalon region, which includes St. John’s, as well as the Corner Brook area in western Newfoundland and the western part of Labrador. The RCMP police the rest of the province. The RNC’s operations cost the provincial government about $67 million in the 2020-2021 fiscal year, according to budget documents.

In St. John’s, especially at night, “downtown” refers to stretches of Water and Duckworth streets that are lined with bars and restaurants, as well as George Street, which is tucked between them. Cabs circle the area until the early morning hours, waiting to be flagged down by people spilling out of the establishments.

It’s not uncommon to see police cruisers among the cabs, or parked along the downtown streets, Dumaresque said, though she notes there have been fewer since the Snelgrove verdict in May. The latest allegations show it’s time to listen to women and marginalized communities who have been speaking up about the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary and to put more money into community groups working to keep people safe downtown, she said.

Musician Kelly McMichael regularly walks home late at night after downtown gigs and said she agrees with Dumaresque. “Defund the police,” she said in a recent interview. Referring to the most recent allegations against officers, she said, “If they can do that, then the system is clearly not working.”

Laura Winters, executive director of the St. John’s Status of Women Council, said her organization is renewing its call to cut police funding. “Sustainable change and institutional change for survivors of sexual violence really is not going to come from inflated budgets for these institutions,” she said in a recent interview. As for whether she thinks the force could ever win the trust of women in the province, Winters said it would first have to acknowledge that the issue is bigger than a few bad officers.

Renee Sharpe teaches self-defence for women and marginalized groups and works at a women’s shelter. “My phone’s been off the hook with people calling me for one-on-one self-defence stuff,” she said in a recent interview, adding that the latest news about the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary is partly responsible.

Sharpe said she feels “hurt and angry and at a loss” about the recent allegations against the force. Like McMichael and Dumaresque, she said she looks to the work by Indigenous groups and Black Lives Matter as examples of how to advocate for communities that are safe for everyone.

The Royal Newfoundland Constabulary’s new interim chief, Patrick Roche, declined a request for an interview. Spokesman Const. James Cadigan said in an emailed statement Tuesday that the force “will continue to work with community groups and services to provide a safe space to best support the needs of survivors.”

Dumaresque said she’ll continue to rely on the network of women working downtown who check in with one another at the end of their shifts and keep in touch until everyone is home safe. As for the police, she said, “Until there is some sort of investigation or some sort of insight from somebody that’s not already tarnished … they’re not needed to be patrolling downtown, in any way.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 3, 2021.

Sarah Smellie, The Canadian Press

sexual assault