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August 13, 2009

“Honour killing” - police and media as sociologists

Scott Stockdale

Scott StockdaleAs intrafamilial crimes are being reported more frequently in the media, variations in the way these crimes are reported tend to emerge. A couple of cases in point are examined below:

In November 2007 the CBC news website reported that police have confirmed that four people whose bodies were found in a southeast Ottawa home were killed in a murder-suicide. An Ottawa police press release also confirmed that the man found among the deceased was the perpetrator and his wife and two adult daughters the victims.

The article goes on to say that co-workers of both the husband, Santibir Singh Brar, 44, and his wife,  Amarjeet Brar, 46, seemed to be happy, well-adjusted, hardworking people. Not only did those who knew them well not detect anything wrong, but they considered their co-workers to be happy, content, and “normal” people.

However, the CBC chose to highlight in bold subheadings a couple of things in the story: “Police found bodies on second visit to the house,” and “House 'always dark' early.”

One can only wonder why these statements were chosen to be bold subheadings. They seem to add a little mystery and a hint of sinister activities at the home, but there doesn't appear to be any facts to support these suggestions. Tellingly , the police don't mention the cultural background of the perpetrator and the victims.

Another CBC story, updated July 23, 2009, begins with the headline: “Canal victims killed by family,” in bold of course.  The story goes on to tell readers that the father, mother, and brother of three teenage girls from Montreal, whose bodies were found in a submerged car in a Kingston, Ontario canal, were charged with killing them and a woman believed to be the father's first wife.

After giving a description of the crime scene, explaining that police found a submerged black Nissan Sentra around 12:30 p.m. , on June 30, the article includes the following statements in large bold lettering.

“Police said they are looking into whether the deaths were an “honour killing” - a tribal custom practiced in some parts of the world in which the majority of victims are women who are perceived to have brought shame to their family.”

In the article, Kingston Police Chief Stephen Tanner said he received an email from someone, who is likely a relative of the family, who claimed it was such a killing. “That will form part of the ongoing investigation,” Police Chief Tanner said. He added that: “Whether that was part of the motive within the family, based on one ... or more of the girls' behaviour is open to a little bit of speculation.”

And that is exactly what Police Chief Tanner did: speculate, in his next statement in the article. This statement follows:

“Tanner said the girls were living as “Canadian teenagers who have all the freedom and rights of expression of all Canadians.”

But the Muslim community in Canada are concerned about the tendency to equate honour killings with the Islamic religion, when, in fact, there is no basis for such killings in the Koran. These community leaders are concerned that this tendency may lead to a backlash against Muslims in Canada. 

However, Rick Parent, assistant professor of Police Studies Program at Simon Fraser University, feels that the police have a responsibility to be candid with the public and the Canadian public is sophisticated enough to avoid such stereotyping.

“Dealing with the media, the police realize the public has a right to know. They must be as candid as possible with the media, as long as it doesn’t compromise the investigation. They must have an open mind because there are often a lot of things not discovered. I think the comment (about honor killings) was fair within the context. The police are looking at all possible avenues. Now the public is fairly sophisticated. They’re able to discern what’s going on.”

As for the tendency of police filling the role of sociologists, by commenting on the cultural background of perpetrators and victims, Mr. Parent feels that while this may be an unfortunate trend, it is still beneficial to Canadian society.

“Unfortunately, on a defacto basis the police have different roles. It’s important that they be honest and transparent. The police are more educated and they have more resources and the public is more sophisticated. The police have more of a role to play in educating the public as to what’s going on, as long as their comments are based on research and facts.”

Meanwhile, I called Kingston Police Chief Tanner's office requesting an interview. In response to his secretary, Donna Harrington's question, I said I wanted to ask about Police Chief Tanner's statements to the media, speculating about the cultural background of perpetrators and victims of a crime.

She said his statements in this regard (about honor killings) were not the police department’s statements, but were made by Police Chief Tanner in response to a question from the media.

The next day she informed me that Police Chief Tanner would not be granting any further interviews and that the matter was before the court. She did, however, add that: “I can't say for sure, but as time goes on maybe there will be further media releases.”

But one has to wonder why Police Chief Tanner speculated about the cultural background of the perpetrator and victims in the 2009 case, while the Ottawa police didn't in the 2007 case.

Scott Stockdale is a freelance writer based in Toronto.

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