Yellowknife RCMP are reviewing the handling of a sexual assault case after a territorial judge blasted their “egregious” decision to arrest a victim instead of taking her to the hospital.
“I am unable to imagine circumstances which would justify this type of treatment of a victim of sexual assault,” stated Judge Garth Malakoe in a written decision dated Aug. 9.
In the decision, Malakoe found Wade Kapakatoak, 25, guilty of sexual assault.
In May of last year, Kapakatoak was drinking with a woman, who was homeless, in the alleyway behind Capital Theatre. Kapakatoak was captured on CCTV surveillance sexually assaulting the woman, who was extremely intoxicated and could not consent.
A witness intervened and called RCMP, telling the dispatcher the woman had been raped. Kapakatoak, who left the scene, was arrested nearby shortly afterwards. But when Mounties met the victim, who was described as uncooperative, they didn’t take her to the hospital to be physically examined for signs of rape. Instead, the victim was arrested for public intoxication and held overnight at the Yellowknife RCMP detachment.
In court documents reviewed by Yellowknifer, the officer who arrested the victim under the Liquor Act stated he did so for the sake of her own safety.
At the time of the assault, the Street Outreach van wasn’t yet in operation.
“It appears the victim was not treated with the dignity and compassion that she or any victim of sexual assault deserves,” wrote Malakoe.
Following the sexual assault, the victim couldn’t be located to testify – and she didn’t. Malakoe stated if the victim was avoiding testify as a result of her encounter with Yellowknife RCMP, then “ her treatment by the police has affected the judicial process.”
With no testimony from the victim, Malakoe’s finding of guilt was based solely on the footage captured by a camera affixed above the Capital Theatre.
Malakoe stated he was reluctant to speak further about the Mounties’ handling of the sexual assault as the force hadn’t yet had a chance to give “its side of the story.”
But, on the surface, Malakoe stated the “treatment by police of the victim was egregious.”
“This treatment is an issue that should be examined and the police should have to explain,” he wrote.
According to Yellowknife RCMP, the incident is being examined.
“We are reviewing the case and have requested a copy of the transcript in order to confirm what information was provided to the courts,” stated spokesperson Marie York-Condon in an email.
“Our review is looking at how we applied our policy and training, the totality of the circumstance (what was known by responding officers, police authorities, medical assessment, etc.). We will also be looking at our interactions with the victim during and after and any support services offered,” stated York-Condon.
But Yellowknife RCMP won’t offer specifics about the review, citing the fact that the “judicial process is still underway,” as Kapakatoak hasn’t yet been sentenced for the sexual assault conviction.
Kapakatoak, who initially pleaded not guilty, changed his plea to guilty in June.
Calling sexual assault a “devastating crime” that brings long lasting trauma to victims, York-Condon stated the detachment is “committed to improving how its employees respond to victims and investigate allegations of sexual assault.”
“The RCMP is taking action to strengthen police training and awareness, investigative accountability, victim support, and public education and communication,” read the statement.
Questions posed to RCMP about what would warrant a sexual assault victim being arrested rather than taken to hospital weren’t specifically addressed but York-Condon stated that once the review is complete, she is confident Yellowknife RCMP will be better placed to answer those questions.
Yellowknife Mounties haven’t provided a timeline for the completion of the review.
Bree Denning, executive director at the Yellowknife Women’s Society – which runs the outreach van and a women’s shelter – wasn’t surprised to hear about the May 2017 incident.
“It’s easy to see how someone who might be in conflict with RCMP in other situations, because they are experiencing homelessness, would easily escalate when met with RCMP in a situation where they are frightened and disoriented,” said Denning.
But Denning said police interactions with vulnerable members of the community has improved in some ways. Before there were more resources like the outreach van and the shelter, jail cells were often the “ first stop for people who were intoxicated in the downtown regardless of what might have happened,” said Denning.
“ We’ve worked really hard on making sure that’s an absolute last resort,” she added.
So, too, Denning, said, has the Yellowknife RCMP.
“The RCMP have been working hard to prevent themselves from having to arrest anyone under the Liquor Act because it’s much more often a public health concern than a legal concern,” said Denning.
Denning said the police handling of the sexual assault underscores the need to establish a crisis centre for women in the city, because victims of sexual assault often don’t want to go through examinations at the hospital or make statements to police immediately after they’ve been assaulted.
Since joining the board of Yellowknife Women’s Society, Denning said there’s long been a push to create a place where victims “can go to have a place to sleep, something to eat, and then be able to wake up and have an examine or make a statement in that space.”
This would allow victims to bypass the hospital and RCMP cells – two places that can be unwelcoming and unpleasant for victims of sexual assault.
Denning said the Mounties’ decision to open a review is encouraging.
“I hope the review will help us to consider what our options are and how we might do things differently,” she said.
Wade Kapakatoak is set to be sentenced on Oct. 11.