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Former Royal Newfoundland Constabulary officer Douglas Snelgrove attends a sentencing hearing at the Newfoundland and Labrador Supreme Court, in St. John's, on Sept. 29.Paul Daly/The Canadian Press

Royal Newfoundland Constabulary officer Kelsey Muise was on patrol in St. John’s suburban east end on a cold night in January, 2015, when she saw the young woman on the side of the road.

Appearing distraught and intoxicated, the woman began crying almost immediately after climbing into the officer’s back seat. Constable Muise pulled into a parking lot and asked her what was wrong. The story she told would take more than six years and three trials to prove – and would rock Newfoundland and Labrador’s provincial police force, the oldest law-enforcement agency in North America.

Jane Doe, a then-21-year-old community-college student whose real name is protected by a publication ban, said she’d been raped by an on-duty RNC officer a month earlier. That officer, Constable Doug Snelgrove, assaulted her in her own apartment, she said, after he offered her a ride home from a bar.

Ms. Doe said meeting the female officer after the assault was crucial to her finally confronting the ordeal. “As soon as I got in her police car, this feeling came over me, this is the chance I needed. If I’m going to get help and finally speak about what happened to me, it’s telling this woman officer right now,” Ms. Doe later told the court in her victim-impact statement.

“She changed my life by believing in me.”

Ms. Doe’s stunning case is forcing changes to policing in her province, and has created a crisis around the future of the RNC, a 400-officer organization with roots dating back to 1729 that has long been a celebrated part of Newfoundland history.

Constable Snelgrove’s conviction in May, 2021, unleashed a flood of new complaints from other Newfoundland women who said Ms. Doe’s story wasn’t an isolated incident. His sentencing on Nov. 12 will be closely watched across the province.

In July, St. John’s lawyer Lynn Moore said she’d documented allegations against nine RNC officers, eight of whom are retired. Many of the women said they were sexually assaulted by a police officer after they, too, were driven home from St. John’s downtown bar district late at night, as Ms. Doe had been.

Last month, the Newfoundland and Labrador government launched an independent review of the RNC, a six-month process that will examine workplace culture and governance within the service. The province’s independent police watchdog, the Serious Incident Response Team of Newfoundland and Labrador (SIRT-NL), also says it’s investigating three cases of alleged sexual assault by RNC officers, two of them now retired.

Data shows recent sexual assault conviction of N.L. police officer not the norm

Ms. Moore says her clients’ allegations date back six to eight years. In most cases, the women don’t know the name of the officer they are accusing, and are wary of going through the justice system to press charges.

The fallout over Ms. Doe sparked a debate in the recent municipal election over whether it’s time for a new police force, one with more civilian oversight. It has also stopped the RNC’s practice of using patrol cars to offer young women rides home at night.

Lloyd Strickland, the Crown prosecutor who led the case against Constable Snelgrove, says the offence warrants a five-year prison sentence and the officer’s registration as a sexual offender.

Ms. Doe, who testified that she kissed the officer, insisted she was too drunk to stand and didn’t recall consenting to sex but woke up to find him having anal sex with her. Mr. Strickland says even if she consented in that state, Constable Snelgrove’s position as a police officer allowed him to gain her trust and abuse his authority.

“People can only begin to trust police if they know officers, if they transgress, they’re going to feel the full weight of the law,” he said. “What this case makes clear is that a person in authority can use their influence to induce somebody to consent, and that it can be subtle.”

Ms. Doe is being applauded in Newfoundland for remaining steady while the justice system stumbled around her. Constable Snelgrove was found not guilty in a 2016 trial, but that verdict was tossed out when the judge made an error advising the jury on the definition of consent. A second trial in 2018 ended over a mistake in jury selection before the third jury trial rendered a guilty verdict.

But those who work with victims of sexual violence say the officer’s sentencing is just the beginning of deep-seated problems within the RNC.

“It’s always devastating, but accounts of on-duty assaults by police officers aren’t new here,” said Bridget Clarke, advocacy co-ordinator with the St. John’s Status of Women Council.

“Jane Doe took on an overwhelming amount of scrutiny, and reliving that trauma to get justice, and became a bit of a catalyst for other women to come forward.”

Sex workers in St. John’s have complained for years that some police officers have abused their power and avoided consequences for sexual misconduct, she said. While the RNC says it takes those concerns seriously and is investigating allegations against four other officers in the wake of Constable Snelgrove’s conviction, it acknowledges public trust in the service has been deeply damaged.

“In order to make any kind of meaningful change, there needs to be a very clear sense of accountability, and we don’t believe we’ve seen that yet,” Ms. Clarke said. “There must be a culture here that allows this to perpetuate and exist over a number of years, at the hands of a number of people.”

Sandra McKellar, executive director of the NL Sexual Assault Crisis and Prevention Centre, said she’s concerned women in her province are less likely to report sexual violence to the police because of the allegations against the RNC. Her organization cancelled its annual Take Back the Night march this year because it didn’t want police involved in the event.

She hopes Newfoundland is finally at a turning point and is ready to confront the problems within its provincial police force.

“When there are allegations like this against the very organizations that are supposed to protect us, it traumatizes again,” Ms. McKellar said. “These allegations have come up before. It comes out in the open, and then it subsides. But I think this time, I hope, people are becoming more vocal and saying, ‘OK, what’s next?’”

The RNC declined an interview request with its interim chief, Patrick Roche but said the force holds its officers and civilian staff to the highest level of integrity, respect and professionalism. The police service is reassuring women they can file a complaint about sexual violence against an officer without needing to speak to police, by going to SIRT-NL or the province’s Public Complaints Commission.

“Any allegation of criminal activity by a member of the RNC will be investigated thoroughly,” Constable James Cadigan, the RNC’s spokesperson, said in a statement. “There are procedures in place to ensure such allegations are met with investigations led by civilian oversight, securing the impartiality that is imperative to public trust.”

Ms. Doe testified she was drunk when she left a downtown bar looking for a cab home the night of Dec. 20, 2014. Constable Snelgrove was sitting in a police car nearby and he rolled down his window and offered her a ride, which she accepted, figuring “a police officer should be safer than a taxi driver.”

Constable Snelgrove, 43, maintained through his trials that he had consensual sex that Ms. Doe initiated after helping her get into the apartment. He testified Ms. Doe told him on the drive home that he was “really attractive” and “looked really good in his uniform.”

The assault on Ms. Doe lasted about 20 minutes. But the young woman’s fight for justice took more than six years. She told the court that the rape, and reliving the trauma, led to a suicide attempt, before getting counselling and medication for anxiety and depression.

Ms. Doe said she was heartbroken when people close to her dismissed her story, doubting an on-duty police officer would do what she had said. She described living with nightmares, crying in her sleep, jolting awake at the slightest sounds in the night.

Investigators ultimately caught Constable Snelgrove by confirming through GPS tracking data that his patrol car was outside her apartment that night. The Ontario Provincial Police were called in and began a covert operation that followed the officer to a local Tim Horton’s restaurant, where they obtained a sample of his DNA from a coffee mug and matched it with DNA found on Ms. Doe’s couch.

“I was violated in my own home, on my own couch by a man in uniform. I felt helpless. There was nothing I could do,” she told the court in her victim-impact statement. “Not a single day passes without it coming to my mind. It will live with me until the day I die, haunting my thoughts.”

Mr. Strickland, the Crown attorney, said he was left in awe of the young woman who never wavered in her testimony and kept sticking to her story until she was finally believed.

“I think she just told the truth, and she knew she was telling the truth and was never going to give up,” he said. “She was not going to be told this didn’t happen.”

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