The highest-ranking police officer of the five cited for breach of ethics in the Montreal police department’s handling of the late Maria Altagracia Dorval’s complaint against her abusive husband testified Monday at the Police Ethics Committee hearings into the case.
Dorval, a 28-year-old mother of three, was killed in her Montreal North apartment a week after she went to police for help. Her case has become a symbol of the justice system’s inadequate response to conjugal violence victims, and has already resulted in some changes to police procedures when dealing with spousal abuse cases.
The hearing, ordered back in August of 2011, has been delayed by the appointment of a new committee chair and by the illness of at least one of the officers cited.
Dorval was murdered on Oct. 17, 2010, six days after she reported to police that her estranged husband, Edens Kenol, had threatened to kill her and their three children two months earlier. She reported that more recently he had been following her, banging on her apartment door and harassing her by phone.
No police detective had responded to Dorval’s complaint by the time of her murder. Kenol was convicted of first degree murder in the spring of 2013, and is serving a life sentence with no chance of parole until 2038.
On Monday, Sgt. Det. Marcel Thifault testified that he was handed the Dorval file at about 11:30 a.m. on Oct. 12, the day after Dorval had made her report. The controller, who assigns cases at the eastern Montreal investigation centre, told Thifault this was an “urgent” case. Thifault said he quickly skimmed the file, and when he saw it contained allegations of death threats against the woman and her three children, he quickly handed it to a detective on duty.
That detective, who is not cited in the ethics breach, came back moments later to tell Thifault that the incident regarding the death threats had taken place two months earlier, on Aug. 16.
“At that moment, I asked myself why this victim waited from Aug. 16 until Oct. 11 to report this,” Thifault testified. “I decided to read the whole file. … I thought if she was really afraid for her life that day, as soon as (Kenol) left she would have called the police. I noticed that since Aug. 16, the suspect had not posed any similar gestures.”
Thifault said the fact that Kenol and Dorval were no longer living together and that Kenol had no police record also led him to conclude that Dorval was not in immediate danger.
Thifault went back to the controller to show him the date discrepancy and claims the controller agreed with him that the case was not urgent. Thifault then put the file on the desk of Sgt. Det. Geneviève Leclerc, whom he knew was not scheduled to work that day.
Thifault said it takes an average of four working days for detectives in his department to contact the alleged victims of conjugal violence, and when they do call them, they spend about an hour on the phone with them. Montreal police receive about 15,000 domestic violence calls each year.
Committee lawyer Christiane Matthieu asked Thifault whether, in his previous experience investigating an estimated 400 to 500 conjugal violence complaints, he had noticed that victims of domestic violence often do not immediately report the first, second or third incidents of violence.
At this point, Thifault’s lawyer, Normand Bibeau objected.
“Look, if we read the newspapers, we are supposed to believe that everybody has been sexually assaulted and never reported it and that every woman has been attacked by her father and her three brothers. In this case we are looking at one specific incident, not the way our society and our justice system handles conjugal violence.”
Committee chair Richard Iuticone allowed the question, and Thifault answered that a lot of women do report the first incident of violence.
Later, Bibeau asked his client whether he had ever seen charges of conjugal violence dropped because the alleged victim “admitted she had invented the charge to get revenge against her ex for his refusal to pay child support, for example.” He asked Thifault to estimate the proportion of conjugal violence cases that are dropped because the alleged victim drops the charges or refuses to testify. Thifault estimated 70 to 75 per cent.
The hearing continues Wednesday.