B.C. Mounties say they have to improve the way they investigate allegations of sexual assault after settling a lawsuit brought by a Kelowna-area woman who, when she was a teenager, was asked during police questioning if she enjoyed the sexual assault.
"We regret this incident, and remain committed to improving how our employees respond to victims and investigate allegations of sexual assault,” said a statement issued by RCMP Staff Sergeant Janelle Shoihet of E Division, which oversees the force’s operations in the province.
“This incident highlighted the importance for the RCMP to continue to review and update our sexual-assault investigative training, practices and policies.”
The legal settlement revolves around the detachment in the city of West Kelowna and an incident that occurred in 2012. Aden Withers was 17 and in the custody of the provincial Ministry of Children and Families when Corporal Kenneth Hall of the West Kelowna Mounties questioned her after she reported she had been sexually assaulted.
What followed was a two-hour interview, recorded in a video widely distributed last year after Ms. Withers obtained a copy and released it to the media. Ms. Withers has asked that her name be released.
In the video, Corporal Hall asks Ms. Withers how much of a fight she put up and whether she was “turned on” by aspects of the attack – a suggestion she rejected.
“I do have a lot of concerns about your story here,” Corporal Hall says.
In a lawsuit filed last September, Ms. Withers sued the Attorney-General of Canada, the B.C. Justice Minister and the officer.
“The malicious demeaning, insulting and abusive interrogation of the plaintiff by Hall was a reckless, misogynistic and arrogant departure from the standard expected of a professionally trained RCMP member,” the statement of claim said.
“Hall intentionally and repeatedly used reprehensible, suggestive questions during the two-hour interrogation to undermine the confidence and integrity of the plaintiff.”
The claim said Ms. Withers suffered “emotional distress, humiliation, shame and embarrassment, [and] suicide attempts” as a result of the actions of the defendants.
“The interview, by any standard, was inappropriate,” said Michael Patterson, Ms. Withers’s lawyer. “The police I deal with on a regular basis are not the caricature of what is on that video. By and large, they take their jobs seriously as professionals.”
Mr. Patterson said Ms. Withers made her own decision to go public with her concerns last year, allowing her name to be published. “We sought to protect her identity, but she decided that she wanted to be an advocate and she went on the record and stated her name, and her face was shown."
No one was ever charged in the assault. Ms. Withers attended a restorative justice program that led to her apologizing to her alleged attacker, the statement of claim said. She said the RCMP and her social worker told her she would be charged with mischief if she didn’t take the program.
The case was settled at a mediation hearing on Jan. 27. “I knew going in [to mediation] that they wanted to settle as quickly and quietly as possible,” Ms. Withers said in an interview.
She said she is unable to discuss the details of the settlement because she signed a non-disclosure agreement.
“I am excited that it is finally over, and I can put that chapter of my life behind me. I hope [the RCMP] take these matters more seriously and are careful with how they interview sexual-assault survivors.”
Of the officer who questioned her, she said, “I hope that he has learned his lesson and that he doesn’t conduct himself in this manner [again].”
Asked about the professional fate of the officer, Staff Sergeant Shoihet said in an e-mail exchange that she cannot comment on his duty status.
The Ministry of Children and Family Development responded for the B.C. government. “While we are unable to comment on confidential legal matters, what we can say is our government firmly believes that when people come forward to report sexual violence, especially young people and Indigenous peoples, they must feel safe and be supported,” the ministry said in a statement.
Meanwhile, the RCMP in the nearby Okanagan city of Kelowna are under scrutiny over disclosures that almost 40 per cent of sexual-assault complaints made to the local detachment in 2018 and 2019 were dismissed as unfounded, a coding term that means the investigating officer did not believe a crime occurred.
Kelowna’s unfounded rate is three times higher than the national average.
The national RCMP sexual assault review team has examined the files deemed unfounded and come up with proposals to help Kelowna Mounties improve. The local force has said the findings will be eventually released.
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