The Plague-Ground – Empathy — With Guns

Back in the 1980s, violence against women was so awful that the São Paulo police force set up women’s police stations in areas where the abuse, assault and death were worst.

These single-gender outposts soon spread from Brazil to Argentina, Central America and Africa. They didn’t spread because they were trendy, but because they worked. Female murder rates dropped, as did violence of all kinds against women.

The idea of a women’s police force in Canadian cities sounds vaguely alien and unnecessary.

But like other Ideas From Elsewhere I’ve been advancing in these blogs, let’s hear it out and think how we can change it to suit what we do need.

Canada is no Eden when it comes to violence against women. Femicide took 150 women’s lives in Canada last year and COVID-19 has sparked a parallel pandemic of violence against women, up 20% to 30% in some regions. And let’s not forget Robyn Doolittle’s shocking series, Unfounded, for the Globe and Mail on how Canadian police dismiss 20% of sexual assault claims as baseless.

The Toronto Police Service has 4,800 officers, and 600 of them are women. Toronto Police also keep real-time data on what parts of the city have the worst domestic violence.

When we can all be out on the streets again, it would be instructive to see the effect of creating pop-up police stations with women police officers in high-risk neighbourhoods.

I’ll bet the same thing will happen here as elsewhere.

Not just because women will be more likely to talk with a female officer than a male officer about something so secret as their own abuse, but because male abusers will…well, I have no evidence for this, but I suspect these men will be less belligerent dealing with a policewoman than a policeman.

Which brings me to mental illness.

The frequency of police killing mentally ill people in Canada is shocking. It’s grown so bad that last month, Canada’s largest mental health hospital, the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, called for police to remove themselves entirely from people having mental health emergencies. Said CAMH: “Police should not be first responders. Police are not trained in crisis care and should not be expected to lead this important work.”

Yes, there are mobile mental health teams consisting of a registered nurse and a police officer. But they only provide backup or ‘secondary response.’ Police officers alone remain the first responders, particularly for calls involving a weapon.

Critics of making mental health teams first responders note that the knife or bullet that will kill an unarmed social worker doesn’t care if it comes from someone who’s mentally ill or someone who’s not. Point taken.

But why don’t we ask police officers who have more empathy and who have guns to be the first responders?

And who are those empathetic police?

Women police officers, of course.

Countless studies point to how women are less threatening, more empathetic, and ‘cooler’ in a hot situation, better able to calm and diffuse an emotional person or crisis. In the spate of police shootings (or in the case of George Floyd, strangulations) we’ve seen in America and here in Canada, it looks to me that they all involve police men and not police women. This could be because police forces are still overwhelmingly male. But I’ll bet it’s because women don’t view a gun in their hand as an extension of their identity the way men do.

So let’s see how women-only police stations and mental health responders led by women police officers can slow the abuse and needless death of women and the mentally ill.

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7 thoughts on “The Plague-Ground – Empathy — With Guns”

  1. Thought provoking, Bob. But what really needs to happen to stop femicide is to ensure women are protected from the abusers once they come forward and report them and leave them. More often than not, this is where we fail them.

  2. Timothy J Stoate


    Thank you for this. These awful statistics weren’t much different 40 years ago when I studied Criminology as an undergraduate at the University of Toronto. In addition, we have an especially long way to go on the issue of reducing violence against aboriginal women.

    Let’s make this idea a reality and create more safe spaces so women can avoid being re-abused as noted by Trish!

    1. Indeed, Tim. 40 years ago, eh? That is sad that the dial has barely moved on this. Let’s hope COVID will give us the chance to change it. Thanks for checking in. Cheers. Bob

  3. Bruce Knicley

    I have opinions about almost any thing and simply have been to lazy and apathetic to raise them on your site…For that I apologize and will try to improve my ways…
    On the topic of Violence towards Females, I had the pleasure., years ago to take leadership in creating a Curriculum in Niagara called P.S. WE CARE iamed to assist in reducing the extent of child abuse, sexual assault and wife battering. I gained so much by this experience…one of the inputs I remember me was a rendering from Dr. Peter Jaffe , a brilliant mental health leader who declared that on an average, a women was beaten 49 times before reporting, and based on all the factors restraining the female victims….he was pleasantly astonished when they took that first step !
    One more point…undoubtedly, Women are much more inclined tobe better listeners than men, more empathic,caring and facilitate…
    Thank you for your exceptional column which I read regularly.

  4. Bruce Knicley

    Dr. Peter Jaffe , of the Universty of London Ontario, avery helpful trainer on the topic of Family
    Violence used to stress that on the average a battered women would be battered 49 times before reporting this pattern of male power anfd dominance. Further more and because he was so versed in the myriad of factors making the female victim a captive, he was surprised when this on occasion took place.
    Another point, females are definitely superior to males in listening skills especially empathy, caring and facilitation…..Thanks for your very helpful regular column.

    Family Violence

  5. Bob, thank you very much for raising this. I promised you information on the Women’s Police Department in Santiago, Chile, but I am still waiting for it. I can tell you that working with them on my documentary, “You Can’t Beat a Woman” was a far cry from working with most male police on the subject of violence against women. Their first response (the male police) was/is to say that when they get a domestic disturbance call they get attacked by the wife or female victim if they try to remove the perpetrator. That’s first and foremost in the minds of many male cops. And it’s usually said with a small sly grin on their faces.
    The chief of the Women’s Police Force in Santiago was a down to earth, gracious intelligent leader and helped me to identify and interview some amazing women. There is more to this story. We’ll sit down an have a chat sometime.
    Sorry I couldn’t help, yet.

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