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Toronto police officer's sex-assault remarks prompt reprimand

A series of sexual assaults and robberies have made safety and violence against women top-of-mind issues at Toronto's York University in recent years, a discussion renewed by a police officer who told a school forum that women's attire can put them at risk of being attacked.

On Thursday, the officer wrote a letter of apology as police tried to distance the force from the remarks.

It all started on Jan. 24 when two male officers came to York's Osgoode Hall law school to speak on a safety panel, alongside a pair of school security guards. The policeman, who reportedly prefaced his comment by saying "I've been told I shouldn't say this," instructed the audience that women should avoid "dressing like sluts" if they wanted to be safe from sexual assault.

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"When the comment was made, people were surprised, things were kind of quiet," said Joey Hoffman, a member of Osgoode's student government, who attended the forum. "People started discussing it after the panel."

Ronda Bessner, an assistant dean, lodged a complaint with police, while discussion of the comment passed among students and faculty, and found its way into the blogosphere. While some called for an apology, others warned that it could indicate a more systemic problem among police.

This week, student newspaper The Excalibur picked up the story and police promptly reassured the public that the officer had been disciplined, following an investigation by the professional standards unit.

The officer is a constable at suburban 31 division, near York campus, but police did not release his name, standard practice in cases where an officer is not formally charged.

Toronto Police spokesman Mark Pugash said the force has previously consulted with women's groups and instituted training to change not only the way sexual assaults are investigated but also how officers understand the motivation behind them.

"These comments were entirely inappropriate and I can assure you, the officer understands that clearly," he said. "They don't reflect the way we train our people."

Scott Anderson, an expert on sexual assault and women's issues at the University of British Columbia, said the police officer's view may originate from the false thinking that, because a sexual offender may select a particular victim, the victim's behaviour is the reason for the assault.

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"The cause of rape is not that women provoke it or entice it - men who want to attack women or assault women will find someone to attack or assault," he said. Despite progress in recent decades, he said, many people still hold the view that women's displays of sexuality somehow equate to bad behaviour.

The university has grappled with violence in recent years, including two dorm-room sexual assaults around the beginning of the school year in 2007, for which a York graduate was ultimately convicted.

Last year, another female student was assaulted by three men outside her apartment near campus. Over the summer, the school released a detailed safety audit prepared by the Metropolitan Action Committee on Violence Against Women and Children.

"I think the issue is sensitive no matter where it takes place -- whether off-campus or on-campus," Mr. Hoffman said. "Having said that, the fact that [the comments were made]on campus hits close to home."

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About the Author
Washington correspondent

Adrian Morrow covers U.S. politics from Washington, D.C. Previously he was The Globe's Ontario politics reporter. He's covered news, crime and sports for The Globe since 2010. He won the National Newspaper Award for politics reporting in 2016. More

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