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Police dismissed fewer sexual assault allegations as “unfounded” in 2017, after The Globe and Mail revealed that Canadian law enforcement disproportionately dismisses sexual offences as baseless compared with other crimes, new crime data from Statistics Canada show.

At the same time, there was a 13-per-cent jump in the total number of “founded” sexual assaults reported to police – a shift partly explained by the fact that fewer cases were dismissed as invalid, unfounded complaints. Rebecca Kong, the head of the policing services program at the Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics, noted that the broader societal reckoning around sexual violence and harassment likely played a significant role as well.

“There was a lot of attention last year in the media – obviously with Unfounded – and the Me Too campaign and Time’s Up. We saw the total [number of sexual assaults] reported to police, both founded and unfounded, increase after October when the Me Too really took hold,” Ms. Kong said.

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From the archives: Unfounded: Why police dismiss 1 in 5 sexual assault claims as baseless

Read more: Despite law-enforcement agencies pledging to revamp approach to policing sexual assault, it’s still status quo at some police services

Read more: What is your police service doing about sexual assault?

Monday marked the first time since 1994 that Statistics Canada included unfounded numbers in its annual crime-data release. The move, one that academics and advocates have been demanding for decades, was announced last spring in response to Unfounded, The Globe’s series.

The newly published numbers from Statistics Canada show that in 2017, police discarded 14 per cent of sexual-assault accusations as unfounded – a term that means the investigating officer does not believe a crime occurred. This is down from 19 per cent for the years 2010-14, based on data collected by The Globe as part of a 20-month investigation.

Proportion of police-reported incidents

classified as unfounded, selected violent

offences, Canada, 2017

Per cent classified as unfounded

Criminal harassment

27%

Indecent or harassing

communications

23

17

Uttering threats

Other violent (1) violations

14

14

Sexual assault*

Sexual violations

against children (2)

14

Forcible confinement

or kidnapping

12

Non-consensual distribution

of intimate images

12

Other assaults

10

Physical assault*

9

Firearms (3)

9

5

Robbery

Extortion

5

*Levels 1, 2 and 3.

1. Criminal Code violations.

2. Excludes sexual assaults against children and youth, which are reported as level 1, 2 or 3 sexual assault.

3. Use of, discharge, pointing.

Note(s):

This chart presents selected violent violations where there were at least 100 incidents classified as unfounded by police in 2017. Data for unfounded incidents are available for 2017 even though inconsistencies in reporting may still exist.

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: STATSCAN

Proportion of police-reported incidents

classified as unfounded, selected violent

offences, Canada, 2017

Per cent classified as unfounded

Criminal harassment

27%

Indecent or harassing

communications

23

17

Uttering threats

Other violent (1) violations

14

14

Sexual assault*

Sexual violations

against children (2)

14

Forcible confinement

or kidnapping

12

Non-consensual distribution

of intimate images

12

Other assaults

10

Physical assault*

9

Firearms (3)

9

5

Robbery

Extortion

5

*Levels 1, 2 and 3.

1. Criminal Code violations.

2. Excludes sexual assaults against children and youth, which are reported as level 1, 2 or 3 sexual assault.

3. Use of, discharge, pointing.

Note(s):

This chart presents selected violent violations where there were at least 100 incidents classified as unfounded by police in 2017. Data for unfounded incidents are available for 2017 even though inconsistencies in reporting may still exist.

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: STATSCAN

Proportion of police-reported incidents classified as unfounded,

selected violent offences, Canada, 2017

Per cent classified as unfounded

Criminal harassment

27%

Indecent or harassing communications

23

Uttering threats

17

Other violent violations (1)

14

Sexual assault*

14

Sexual violations against children (2)

14

Forcible confinement or kidnapping

12

Non-consensual distribution of intimate images

12

Other assaults

10

Physical assault*

9

Firearms (3)

9

Robbery

5

Extortion

5

*Levels 1, 2 and 3.

1. Criminal Code violations.

2. Excludes sexual assaults against children and youth, which are reported as level 1, 2 or 3 sexual assault.

3. Use of, discharge, pointing.

Note(s):

This chart presents selected violent violations where there were at least 100 incidents classified as unfounded by police in 2017. Data for unfounded incidents are available for 2017 even though inconsistencies in reporting may still exist.

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: STATSCAN

The release also included unfounded rates for other criminal offences, providing a benchmark with which to measure whether sexual-assault offences are more likely to be dismissed as baseless. Over all, 7 per cent of Criminal Code violations were deemed to be unfounded. Robbery (5 per cent), extortion (5 per cent) and physical assault (9 per cent) posed lower unfounded rates than sexual assault. By comparison, criminal harassment (27 per cent), indecent or harassing communications (23 per cent) and uttering threats (17 per cent) were all more likely to be closed as unfounded.

Ottawa criminologist Holly Johnson cautioned that Monday’s news gives only a glimpse of the overall picture. The real test about whether police are doing a better job of investigating sexual assault will come several years down the road, when it’s possible to see trend lines in the numbers.

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“To me, the real measure of success is the percentage of cases resulting in charges. If they’re improving investigative procedures then we should see an improvement in charges laid,” said Ms. Johnson, who has spent years researching the unfounded issue.

Of particular interest will be watching how the statistics change in police services that have implemented new specialized sexual assault training and new oversight measures after the Globe’s investigation, she said.

The Globe’s 20-month Unfounded investigation, which launched in February, 2017, revealed that Canadian police were dismissing one out of every five sexual-assault complaints as unfounded, which was nearly twice the rate for physical-assault cases. Further, The Globe determined that police in 115 communities were rejecting at least a third of all sexual-assault complaints, despite the fact that studies in North America, Britain and Australia have shown the false reporting rate for sexual assault is between 2 per cent and 8 per cent.

To try to understand why so many complaints were being dismissed, The Globe also investigated 54 sexual-assault files reported to police and found widespread evidence of investigative missteps, a lack of understanding about Canadian consent law, and an adherence to rape myths and stereotypes in every corner of the country.

The response to the series was swift. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and various federal and provincial ministers vowed action. The federal government pledged $100-million toward ending gender-based violence, citing The Globe’s stories in its funding announcement. At least 100 police services across the country promised to review what has now ballooned to more than 37,000 previously closed sexual-assault files. To date, thousands have been reclassified and more than 400 unfounded files were reopened. Half of the country is now being policed by law-enforcement agencies that are working on outside case reviews inspired by a program in Philadelphia, which gives front-line advocates access to police files to look for signs of bias.

Sunny Marriner, the executive director of the Ottawa Rape Crisis Centre, has been leading the campaign to bring the Philadelphia Model to Canada. She developed a Canadian-version of the program back in 2013. To date, seven services and counting have agreed to pilot the oversight model.

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Meanwhile, a working group of high-ranking Ontario police officers is creating its own advocate case-review framework, which it hopes to roll out in 2019. To date, 16 services are involved and the group is hoping to get buy-in from departments across the country.

“There’s been fantastic support and no one [in the police community] has dug in their heels. They’re coming to us on a regular basis. When they hear about the work we’re doing, they’re finding they don’t have to do it themselves,” said one of the group’s leaders, Inspector Monique Rollin of Sault Ste. Marie Police Service. “I’m thrilled that the advocates are being allowed into our organizations … They are really the subject-matter experts.”

Ms. Marriner is helping the group develop its oversight blueprint, although she pointed out that advocates have already done that work and it has already been implemented in the pilot sites, which include Calgary; Ottawa; Kingston; Stratford, Ont.; Timmins, Ont.; Peterborough, Ont.; and London, Ont.

“In an ideal world, you wouldn’t want police setting the terms of their own oversight. That said, there’s numerous officers in services around the province and the country who have reached out to us and want to work alongside us and that’s what we welcome,” she said.

Last April, Statistics Canada announced it would resume publishing unfounded data nearly 25 years after it first stopped releasing detailed information. At the same time, the statistics agency and the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police said it would update the Uniform Crime Reporting survey, which outlines the specific criteria for crime classification in Canada.

After the Globe series, some police chiefs blamed their high unfounded rates on administrative errors and insufficient coding options to clear out cases that had minimal evidence. To address these concerns, changes were made to the UCR earlier this month, including new case closing options, the discontinuation of the “unsubstantiated” category and a more explicit definition of a “founded” allegation.

The UCR system launched in 1962 after officials recognized that without a standardized method for recording crime data, it would be impossible to assess trends and make evidence-based decisions on priorities.

Several decades ago, Statistics Canada officials began raising concerns that some police services were either misusing the unfounded designation or not recording these cases at all. Because of these inconsistencies, the agency stopped publishing numbers for individual jurisdictions in 1994, rather than force police services to adhere to their own classification protocols.

In 2003, the Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics – a branch of Statscan – released a special report on sexual offences that mentioned that the previous year’s national unfounded rate for sexual offences was 16 per cent. This was the last time any official unfounded information appeared from the government. In 2006, the Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics and the Police Information and Statistics formally agreed to stop collecting and publishing unfounded data.

Ms. Kong cautioned that it will take a few years before the agency will have total confidence in the numbers. The 2017 statistics released Monday uses the old UCR criteria, and the coding updates announced earlier this month may not be fully implemented until the end of the year in some jurisdictions.

“We’re looking forward to the 2018 and 2019 data,” she said.

For near two years a team of Globe journalists, including investigative reporter Robyn Doolittle, dug into the figures and the people behind alleged sexual assault cases which police can deem "unfounded.'
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