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Attendees as the funeral program for 17-year-old Rehtaeh Parsons at St. Mark's Anglican church in Halifax, April 13, 2013. (PAUL DARROW/REUTERS)
Attendees as the funeral program for 17-year-old Rehtaeh Parsons at St. Mark's Anglican church in Halifax, April 13, 2013. (PAUL DARROW/REUTERS)

Police, prosecutors failing sex-assault cyberbullying victims, experts say Add to ...

With each Rehtaeh Parsons in Cole Habour, N.S., or Amanda Todd in Vancouver – teenagers attacked in real life and bullied online to the point of suicide – Toronto Police social-media officer Scott Mills feels it again: “We may have been able to save that girl.”

This week, he has been far from alone. After the 17-year-old Ms. Parsons’s death last weekend from the effects of hanging, and with the stories of her sexual assault two years earlier and ostracization and Internet harassment ever since, the cry for justice has been loud. In both social and traditional media, people have been saying that we could have saved that girl, and expressing outrage that no one was charged with harming her.

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The pattern has been high in the public consciousness both inside and outside Canada, with the gang-rape and digital-bullying case in Steubenville, Ohio, and the death of California teen Audrie Pott in an eerily similar case to that of Ms. Parsons.

On Friday, Rehteah’s mother’s boyfriend reiterated the family’s belief that she was let down. “No matter where her mother turned to try to get help for her, no matter where Rehtaeh tried to turn to get help, all she had was her family,” said Jason Barnes. “The justice system failed us completely.”

The online hacker-activist group Anonymous claimed that it had names, testimony and digital evidence to prove who had committed the rape and harassment – but, with uncharacteristic restraint, said that it would withhold the information in co-operation with the family’s wishes provided law-enforcement officials began to take action.

On Friday, Halifax Regional Police and the RCMP announced they would reopen the investigation into Rehtaeh Parsons case, saying that new evidence (not from Anonymous) had come to light.

Earlier in the week, Nova Scotia Justice Minister Ross Landry said that he would look at new legislation to cover the way graphic cellphone pictures and other material circulated and shamed Ms. Parsons.

But calls for new legislation miss the point, legal experts say: Canada already has strong laws to address these kinds of crimes. The failure has more to do with both public awareness and the uneven competence and vigour with which those crimes are investigated and prosecuted across the country, especially with the ever-evolving nature of online crime.

The alleged crimes against Ms. Parsons would be covered in the Criminal Code by offences such as sexual assault, child pornography (even when produced and shared by other minors), the sexual exploitation of children, criminal harassment (no matter what the medium), uttering threats and intimidation.

But Nick Bala, a Queen’s University law professor and expert on youth crime, says that investigations often founder for lack of computer acumen. Police need the expertise not only to identify the individual who posted a message or photo, but those who reposted and distributed it.

“A person may say that it came from his cell phone, but he didn’t have his cell phone at time,” says Prof. Bala. “How do you actually prove who was sending the messages? In the Parsons case, the Crown is quoted saying they can’t prosecute based on rumours. That is certainly true. But I think there are ways of digging through the rumours to those closest to the event – including, through use of technology, to establish who is taking the pictures and where they were being sent from.”

Constable Mills says it comes down to two matters: “training and manpower. … It’s very simple to save lives once you’ve got that.”

Cst. Mills has been preaching the importance of social media in policing to his colleagues for much of his 11 years with Toronto Police. At his urging, over 350 officers are now active on Twitter and other social media – and while what they tweet is mostly mundane, what they receive can be invaluable. On several occasions, Cst. Mills has stared into his BlackBerry at tweets and e-mails warning of an imminent suicide and was able to arrange for help.

That is not so easy, however, for constables attached to smaller forces.

“In downtown Toronto, we have specialized squads and victim witness and support and all the bells and whistles, but that isn’t necessarily true in small communities,” says Susan Chapman, a former Ontario Crown prosecutor who specializes in sexual-assault cases. “Some officers are quite well trained. Others have no more experience than the average guy in the street, yet they are tasked with this very important job. You really see different levels of enthusiasm brought to bear by police.”

In some jurisdictions, police have taken to offering lenient treatment to those who reposted a violent or pornographic image in return for identifying or agreeing to testify against the main perpetrators.

Dr. Peter Jaffe, a professor at University of Western Ontario’s faculty of education and a noted expert in family violence, says that the public, too, is often unaware of the legal tools that are available. “I see a lot of cases in the dating area and domestic violence where people don’t do anything. They finally call police and are told that they had clear grounds for criminal harassment. … There need to be conversations in every classroom and much better liaison between schools and police departments.”

In less dire cases, too, legal institutions find themselves challenged by changing digital realities. “Even in Family Court,” says Justice Harvey Brownstone, an Ontario Court judge and host of a TV talk show, Family Matters, “we are seeing an alarming increase in cases where Facebook, Twitter and other social media vehicles being used by ex-spouses to harass, embarrass, bully and shame each other. … It is not uncommon for restraining orders to now include specific prohibitions against such activity.”

For his part, Cst. Mills has been pitching for the past year an idea to overcome many of the regional disparities in cyber-capability, particularly on suicide. He envisions a 24/7 triage team that would operate somewhat like Crime Stoppers, collecting online tips, intelligence and complaints from any jurisdiction in the world and immediately dispatching the appropriate response, whether it be police, medical help, social workers or just a friend.

Yet even such teams would not single-handedly overcome all the hurdles police and prosecutors face when trying to crack serious cases of online harassment. Indeed, many experts worry that a focus on online culture misses the heart of the matter.

“It reflects a more profound problem about violence against women, and the extent to which we are willing to humiliate and denigrate them,” says Dr. Jaffe, a professor at University of Western Ontario’s faculty of education and a noted expert in family violence. “Rather than encouraging a generation of young people who see something and report it or reach out to help people, we are developing a generation of people who see something bad happening and take pictures and post them.”

Kirk Makin is The Globe’s justice reporter. Patrick White is a reporter with The Globe.

Follow on Twitter: @Nut_Graf

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