The Most Dangerous Occupation

Which is more dangerous in Canada: being a cop, or being a wife? The answer is: wife. By a long shot.

The myth that policing is the most dangerous occupation is a pervasive one. We hear often how the men and women of law enforcement put themselves in mortal danger every time they put on a uniform. Certainly, police put themselves in harm's way, and it is undeniable that they are injured and killed on the job far too often. When an officer is murdered on the job, public outrage is justified. But the often-repeated claim that policing is the most dangerous job just doesn't hold up to scrutiny.

Far more women are killed by an intimate partner in a single year in this country than are officers killed in the line of duty. It has always been so.

In Ontario, the most-populous province, 176 police officers were killed in the line of duty over the course of more than 100 years. Between 1893 and 2002, those provincial, city and regional officers were most often the victims of traffic and other accidents, according to information compiled by the Police Association of Ontario. That's fewer than the number of women killed by a current or former partner in the province every five years, with an average rate of 40 each and every year.

It's a figure that, despite a high-profile coroner's inquest into the June, 2000 murder of young Pickering, Ont. mother Gillian Hadley, is on the rise. Statistics Canada notes that the 2001 spousal homicide rate rose for the first time in six years. Thanks in part to a spate of Ontario murders, 69 Canadian women were killed by an intimate partner that year, while the national homicide rate overall remained stable, at just over two per 100,000 population.

That frightening summer that Gillian Hadley's estranged, disturbed husband shot her and then himself, at least seven Ontario women were victims of murderous current or former intimate partners. It was called a crisis by people who work with victims of domestic violence, compared to an "open season" on women, and came just two years after an earlier coroner's inquest had made more than 200 recommendations intended to keep men from killing their wives and girlfriends.

Two years after the Hadley inquest, fewer than a dozen of that jury's 58 recommendations had been followed-up by the provincial government. Three years after her death, governments are still vowing to address the problem of woman abuse and prevent more homicides. This June, Ontario announced $3-million in funding for a McMaster University research project to screen women for abuse, an issue the government says costs the country $1.5 billion a year in health-care costs.

According to Statistics Canada, 51 women were killed by a current or ex-spouse in 2000, the same year that proved so deadly for women in southern Ontario. That year, nine law enforcement officers were killed on the job -- by all causes, including falls, training accidents and heart attacks. The following year, seven law enforcement officers were killed on the job; in 2002 there were 11 "line of duty" deaths, and so far in 2003, three officers have died -- in car and plane crashes.

Those officers had, in the terminology of people who study occupational health, taken a "voluntary risk" by joining a police force, correctional service or other enforcement unit. They were trained in how to deal with violence, instructed on how to protect themselves, had back-up from other armed officers, and given protective gear as well as night sticks and service revolvers.

In contrast few, if any, of the murdered women had weapons on hand to defend themselves. Rather than a squad of comrades to answer a cry for help, women can seek court orders, and hope they are enforced. They can go to a crisis shelter and hope it is not full, and that their husband doesn't break in and kill them, as happened in Quebec in 2001.

Short of isolating themselves, women in this country have much less ability to protect themselves than do law enforcement officers, because most female homicide victims are killed by someone with whom they have had an intimate relationship. They are shot, stabbed, burned, thrown from balconies and bludgeoned by husbands and boyfriends --- people who likely did not pose an obvious threat when they first met. More often, they began a relationship with the simple intent of forming a couple and starting a family.

That simple desire for a domestic relationship places younger women at particular risk. Women under 25 were killed in 2000 at a rate of 21.3 per million couples. And assaults on pregnant women are deemed to be so common in this country -- - at an estimated rate of 5.5 per cent of all pregnancies -- that the College of Family Physicians of Canada recommends that all pregnant women be screened for past or current abuse. A task force established to curtail the "epidemic" of abuse against women, in London, Ont., recommends that screening for domestic abuse be part of the routine medical check-ups of all women, starting at age 12.

In contrast to merely being a woman who is, or has been, in an intimate relationship, policing is much safer. It is no more dangerous than any other job in which workers must deal with the public. It's no riskier than being a retail worker. Police officers are injured no more often than motel clerks or service station attendants. Occupational Health and Safety statistics, based on claims for workers' compensation, show that farmers, miners, loggers, nurses, taxi drivers, commercial fishers and construction workers are injured and killed much more often than police.

And yet, when a worker in another occupation dies on the job, there seldom follows the media attention, or the public outcry, that is so justified when a police officer dies on duty. Across Canada, memorials have been built to honour those who died on the job in such fields as mining, sailing, firefighting and other hazardous jobs. But a memorial to women killed by an intimate partner? Not yet.

Parks, streets, schools, even boats, have been named for fallen police officers. Monuments are constructed in their memory. Scholarships are handed out in their names. Their sudden violent ends are announced in Parliament. Their funerals are international news. A 1998 funeral for a slain Toronto officer -- stabbed while on plainclothes duty by two drug-addicted and homeless women who didn't know he was a police officer -- was attended by some 12,000 people. Up to 160,000 people watched the funeral on the internet and thousands more saw it live on television.

But for women who die at the hands of an intimate, their legacy is too often little more than a mention in the legislature, when an Opposition member asks what has been done to address the latest coroner's inquest recommendations.

Elizabeth LeReverend is a freelance writer, editor and researcher whose full-time police-beat reportage at a daily newspaper earned several awards.

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