The rate of sexual-assault complaints that police reject as “unfounded” has dropped by more than half since a Globe and Mail investigation put a spotlight on the issue five years ago.
Today, 8 per cent of sexual assaults reported to police are being closed as unfounded, a law-enforcement term that means the allegation is false or baseless. This is down from the 19-per-cent rate that The Globe reported in its 2017 Unfounded series, a sweeping investigation into the ways Canadian police forces mishandle sexual-assault cases.
Progress is apparent in every corner of the country, but police departments in larger communities have shown the most improvement. These are also the police services that have been the most likely to implement new policies, such as trauma-informed training, civilian oversight of investigative files and new protocols around who has the power to dismiss an accusation as unfounded. In general, communities with fewer than 100,000 residents tended to have higher unfounded rates, which is a trend that continues from the 2017 data.
NOTE: The Globe and Mail calculated these unfounded rates using numbers provided by Statistics Canada for the year 2021, which is the most recent data available. These new numbers cannot be directly compared to figures cited in the original Globe series, because they were collected and calculated using different methodologies. In the Criminal Code, there are three levels of sexual assault. Both sets of unfounded rates combine all sexual-assault complaints into one figure.
Advocates and experts say the dramatic drop in unfounded cases is a significant victory. But they caution that it remains to be seen how many police forces are truly reckoning with the failures of the past and how many are playing a statistics game.
“It’s really easy to just change that number, but what else is happening?” asked Jenn Richard, the director of strategic development at Sexual Violence New Brunswick.
The real work, Ms. Richard said, is confronting the influence that rape myths and stereotypes have had on how police handle these cases. These myths are the deeply embedded biases held within society that contribute to minimizing the severity of sexual violence, casting blame on victims and finding excuses for those who commit harm. High unfounded rates have been one expression of this culture, but these biases are also at the root of incomplete investigations and mistreatment of survivors, Ms. Richard said.
The Globe’s 2017 investigation included hundreds of freedom-of-information requests sent to every police service in the country and an examination of 54 sexual-assault complaints.
The reporting revealed widespread ignorance among officers about Canadian consent law and showed that basic steps – such as interviewing witnesses, building timelines, collecting video surveillance and ordering forensic testing – were being skipped before closing files. Through this reporting, The Globe proved that police were disproportionately dismissing sexual-assault complaints as unfounded compared with other crimes.
In response to the revelations, police services across Canada vowed to change. Pledges were made to adopt trauma-informed training and create new policies and procedures around how sexual-assault cases are handled. By the end of 2017, at least 100 police services committed to review previously closed sexual-assault case files.
Today, The Globe is examining the impact of those promises – through interviews with those on the front lines of this change, a questionnaire sent to police services across Canada and a new statistical analysis of Canadian crime data.
Statistics Canada provided a custom data set that included each police service’s unfounded rates, charge rates and clearance rates for sexual-assault allegations. It’s not possible to directly compare these figures to the 2017 Unfounded series because the methodologies used then are different from current ones, and the way that police code crimes shifted after publication. However, the previous rates can serve as a reference point to evaluate the current landscape.
For example, in Ms. Richard’s home province of New Brunswick – which had the highest unfounded rate of any province or territory five years ago – the unfounded rate is now a fraction of what it once was, dropping from 32 per cent to 12 per cent.
“I think what we’ve seen since Unfounded is a pretty profound culture shift in policing. Overall, what we’re seeing is a lot better and they’re more open to collaboration. There was a level of humility that came out after the report,” said Ms. Richard.
Her agency is involved with civilian oversight of investigative files at two police services in the province to date, but two more departments plan to launch community case review teams next year, she said.
The widespread adoption of these reviews is perhaps the most radical change to come about after the 2017 series. These groups are typically made up of local civilian experts, such as counsellors, advocates, nurses and academics. They are given access to police case files to look for signs of investigative deficiencies and biases. These reviews provide a window into a once top-secret process. Those involved in this work say there has been real improvement.
Sunny Marriner is the former executive director of the Ottawa Rape Crisis Centre who now works full-time setting up review teams as the Canadian lead on the Violence Against Women Advocate Case Review.
Among police departments that do reviews, there is wide variation, including the frequency, the individuals involved and the type of material to which review teams have access. Ms. Marriner organizes a specific type of case review, which puts advocates at the centre of the oversight. It was inspired by a program that has run in Philadelphia for more than two decades and is considered the gold standard.
Ms. Marriner says she currently has 27 police services enrolled in her type of review and five more about to sign on.
Ms. Marriner said the feedback she’s heard from her teams is generally positive, but progress has not been a straight line. “Some of our review teams have said they’ve seen really excellent improvement and change with the investigations … and then other teams are struggling, where they feel that they’re consistently trying to move forward the same metric over and over and over again,” she said.
One of the first goals for any review team is to try and achieve a level of standardization in how cases are documented.
“We have some files where we have to say they’re ‘unreviewable.’ I open the file and there is one sentence or an officer has said they’re going to do an interview and then nowhere in the file can you tell if an interview occurred,” Ms. Marriner said.
The pandemic has also posed a challenge for review committees. Some paused for parts or all of the last nearly three years over concerns about congregating in close quarters, leading to significant backlogs in some cities. For example, the sexual-assault allegation at the centre of the Hockey Canada scandal was not looked at by the review team in London, Ont., for this reason.
Mary Jane James, chief executive officer of the Sexual Assault Centre of Edmonton, said her group was forced to break because of COVID-19, but resumed its meetings earlier this year.
From her perspective, Ms. James says she’s noticed a big improvement in the way that police approach these cases. Many of the changes are subtle shifts in tone and body language, she said. The officers are making clear efforts to appear less intimidating. The complainant interviews don’t look like interrogations. Officers make sure to provide information on support resources, she said.
“I am sure there are many survivors who are reading this and would say, ‘That is complete garbage. I went to the police and they were the meanest, rudest, most awful people I’ve ever had to deal with in my life.’ And I don’t doubt that to be true. Police are not perfect,” she said. “But what I would say without doubt is that they’re trying very, very hard to learn from us.”
The change is especially apparent with officers who work in the specialized sex-crimes unit, Ms. James said. When she and her team do encounter issues, it’s usually with first-responding constables, who don’t have as much training or experience. In particular, she said, this is true when a complainant comes from a vulnerable population.
For Farrah Khan, the manager of Consent Comes First, the Office of Sexual Violence Support and Education at Toronto Metropolitan University, it’s clear that police have made some strides, but she worries that this progress is being felt differently by certain types of complainants.
“I hear from Black and Indigenous and other racialized survivors who still feel that they aren’t being heard, seen or believed when they access services,” she said. “Assumptions around who deserves healing and justice still exist. Seeing survivors who may not fit into the idea of a virtuous survivor – maybe they were drinking or maybe they were the one to initiative the activity – they’re still treated differently.”
Ottawa criminologist Holly Johnson said that if the goal is to see whether police are doing a better job, one useful metric to watch is the charge rate.
At the time of the original series, criminal charges were being laid in 44 per cent of all sexual-assault cases, although this number was inflated by the overuse of the unfounded closure code. Because unfounded files are not considered legitimate complaints, they are not included in overall reporting numbers sent to Statistics Canada. This overuse of the clearance code was skewing the proportion of allegations that result in charges. (Back in 2017, unfounded numbers weren’t reported to Statistics Canada in any capacity. This changed after the series.)
As of last year, the national charge rate was 36 per cent.
“It’s very disappointing that they would have two-thirds of all cases where they’re not laying charges,” said Ms. Johnson. “It’s hard to say what the optimal charge rate is but it’s not 36 per cent.”
Reaction from police services to the original Unfounded series was mixed. While some acknowledged deeper problems with how allegations of sexual violence were investigated, others placed most of the blame on the coding system that police in Canada use.
Stuart Betts, Deputy Chief of the London Police Service and past co-chair of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police’s statistics committee, said at the time that some officers were unclear on the correct usage of “unfounded.” It’s not meant to be used if, for example, there is limited evidence to mount an investigation or if a complainant has stopped co-operating.
Police leadership worked with Statistics Canada to add more coding options to clear cases in the Uniform Crime Reporting Survey, which is a national set of standards that police use to report criminal occurrences and investigative outcomes to the federal statistics agency. Previously, some of the UCR codes could only be used if police had an identifiable suspect – for example a code that meant a complaint declined to proceed. In the new system, officers don’t need an accused to use that code. Additionally, new options were added including “not cleared – insufficient evidence to proceed” and “not cleared – open.”
There has always been an option to code cases as “not cleared,” but Deputy Chief Betts said that clearance rates have historically been used as a metric of police success, so officers – who may already have some confusion about when “unfounded” was appropriate – may have felt pressure to avoid using the “not cleared” code. These expanded categories added the option to provide rationale for why a case hasn’t cleared.
After these changes to the UCR codes were made, there was a national training initiative, which took until the spring of 2018 to complete. Part of that training was recalibrating expectations around what a true clearance rate looks like. Today, the national clearance rate for sexual-assault cases – which refers to cases that have been resolved in some way – is 46 per cent. At the time that the 2017 story ran, it was 56 per cent.
“Clearance rates are lower now, but they’re more reflective of reality,” Deputy Chief Betts said.