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As police, we need to use a trauma-informed approach.

Dave Attfield is the Surrey RCMP’s Superintendent of Operations. His role includes oversight of Surrey’s frontline general duty responders including the newly integrated Domestic Violence Unit.

After 22 years of service, Dave reflects on three defining moments in his career that shape his current understanding of domestic violence and the importance of using a trauma-informed approach.

“My early experiences were mostly in the Kamloops area . . . my very first arrest was for domestic violence. And interestingly enough, just as you might expect with the cycle of violence, I made a second arrest on a breach by that same person. And then I didn’t hear anything from this couple for quite some time.”

During a snow storm Dave received a call to attend a scene in a rural area located in the interior of BC.

“We grabbed a vehicle and we had to drive at about 20 kilometres an hour for quite a long time over the hills into White Croft to get there to this domestic complaint. We were hoping that nothing really bad had happened because the response was obviously slow. And lo and behold it’s this same couple again. It certainly underlined the ongoing nature of the dynamics of the relationship.”

A few years later Dave was stationed in Kamloops, just 120 kms north west of the Vernon Massacre.  Looking back, Dave describes the Vernon Massacre as a “watershed moment.”

Rajwar Chahal separated from her husband, Mark, after only six months of marriage in January 1995. Rajwar filed formal complaints with the police that he continued to threaten and harass her after the separation. On April 6, 1996, Mark shot and killed his wife and 7 other members of her family. He later killed himself. The murder-suicide is the second-largest mass murder in Canada.

The Vernon Massacre was an important milestone in BC for women escaping domestic violence.

It led to comprehensive policy changes that included amendments to the provincial Violence Against Women in Relationships Policy, RCMP policy and training on domestic violence for police officers across the province. “In the course you had people from all over British Columbia. Some of the members held those older attitudes about violence so a lot of it was having those hard discussions about how this isn’t about one incident. It’s about a pattern of behaviour in a very high-risk situation.”  Dave describes how these changes improved the handling of domestic violence cases, but that the police remained disconnected from the community and were not “taking a holistic look at violence. There was still an influence of societal beliefs and norms at the time about the role of the man and the family.”

The Vernon Massacre would not be Dave’s last encounter with domestic violence as a police officer. Years later, in a sad twist of irony, Dave’s first homicide investigation as a lead investigator was a mother of two who was killed by her husband.

“He had hit the mother’s head on the bathroom floor and killed her. We managed to catch him fairly quickly after that. Proving the offence wasn’t too difficult, but we were trying to get a second-degree murder conviction. To do this, we had to take a look at that history and tell the story of that family. This really drove home, again, the need to intervene earlier on in the history of the relationship.”

As Superintendent of Operations, Dave influences how the newly integrated Domestic Violence Unit and general duty members respond to women fleeing violence.  “I’m very impressed with BC’s provincial government, with all the partners like Surrey Women’s Centre because we’ve got a risk informed, structured approach to this issue right down to the way that reports to Crown Counsel are prepared and structured – it just forces us into doing this work in a risk informed fashion and to reach out and partner.” He also talks about the need to be sensitive to the impact of trauma.

Most importantly, however, he says, “As police, we need to use a trauma-informed approach…. When it comes to domestic violence situations, you have to switch gears. You’ve got to take the time and understand the risk factors. This is not the only incident. You’re not investigating an incident, you’re investigating a situation that occurred in the context of a family that probably had things that happened before, and will probably have things that will happen after. It’s extremely important how you approach and treat the victim from the very first interaction. You need to build a positive relationship. Support them. Understand that they may not be ready to tell you everything just because you said ‘tell me what happened.”

Major changes have occurred during the last 22 years that Dave has been a police officer. Not only has Dave been a witness to these changes - he is a part of them.