Police training in domestic violence scrapped for years before veteran’s murder-suicide: inquiry

The provincial fatality inquiry examining why an Afghanistan veteran killed his family and himself in 2017 heard Monday that Nova Scotia police officers had limited intimate partner violence training in the seven years before the murder-suicides.

Sharon Flanagan, seniorr on policing and public safety with the Justice Department, testified there were few advise training courses offered between 2009 and 2016 — in large part because the number of police consultants shrunk through attrition and weren’t replaced.

Flanagan is now the only provincial adviser who trains and audits the province’s municipal police services, RCMP and military police.

But she testified there were eight consultants when she started with the Justice Department in 2003. She said they shared the responsibilities she now largely shoulders by herself.

By 2016, trauma-informed training had summarized, though Flanagan couldn’t tell inquiry Judge Warren Zimmer whether it “simply fell by the wayside” because of a lack of staffing in previous years, or whether funding had been cut.

The inquiry has already heard from an academic expert on domestic violence who said there were “clear warning signs” of the tragedy, all of which went unnoticed by doctors, mental health professionals and police officers who interacted with the family in the preceding years.

A missed pattern of risk

They were focused exclusively on Desmond’s post-traumatic stress disorder and deteriorating overall mental health — and a lack of communication between institutions meant no one saw the pattern of risk to his family, said Peter Jaffe, director of the Ontario-based Center for Research and Education on Violence Against Women & Children.

On Jan. 3, 2017, Desmond went to the home of his in-laws in Upper Big Tracadie, NS, carrying both a rifle he’d purchased earlier that afternoon and a knife he used to slash the tires on his wife’s car.

The veteran fatally shot his wife, Shanna, then his daughter, Aaliyah, and his mother, Brenda, before turning the gun on himself.

Shanna Desmond and her daughter, shown here at Shanna’s graduation from nursing school, were killed on Jan. 3, 2017. (Facebook)

He had been released from an in-patient psychiatric facility less than five months prior, where a team tried unsuccessfully to stabilize Desmond’s chronic PTSD symptoms.

“Had there been earlier risk assessments, earlier interventions, there may have been a different course,” Jaffe testified. “The mental health problems were so overwhelming that … the danger these mental health problems posed were overlooked.”

Preventing future deaths

The inquiry’s mandate is to prevent future deaths, like those of the Desmond family, by making recommendations for institutional and government change.

One of Jaffe’s suggestions to the inquiry is to conduct a provincial audit to ensure police officers have the necessary training to recognize these high-risk circumstances.

Flanagan last performed an audit in 2019 into how the province’s policing agencies are responding to intimate partner violence in the community.

Brenda Desmond, 52, had worked in the construction industry and lived in Upper Big Tracadie, NS She was fatally shot by her son in the murder-suicide. (Facebook)

Flanagan told the inquiry that the then-Liberal justice minister Mark Furey had ordered the audit, noting that due to the lack of current resources it’s unlikely another will be performed for several years.

The audit found that most agencies had policies in place — and were regularly using them — for responding to domestic violence cases. But she noted that supervisors and those in charge of case management might need extra support and training, which she conducted in June 2019.

About 110 officers attended, including some from the RCMP.

Another session had been scheduled for June 2020, but it was canceled due to pandemic restrictions.

Flanagan is the second-last witness to testify at the inquiry, which began hearing evidence on Jan. 27, 2020. The pandemic delayed hearings, but the final day of testimony is expected to be Tuesday.

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