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Globe and Mail reporter Robyn Doolittle.

The Globe and Mail

The first time I spoke with Ava, she was whispering to me on her cell phone from a commuter train west of Toronto. She was nervous. Outside of her immediate circle and her therapist, she had never discussed that night with anyone. But when she discovered that a reporter from The Globe was working on an investigation into how Canadian police services handle sexual assault cases, she agreed to be interviewed one evening in June, 2016.

Six years ago, Ava says, she was raped by a stranger at a party.

The police were contacted right away and within 12 hours, she was sitting with a detective. During the interview, she says, the officer kept insinuating that she wasn't telling the truth; that the sex had actually been consensual. Ava told me that when it was over, she "didn't want anything to do with the police again, ever again."

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Unfounded: Police dismiss 1 in 5 sexual assault claims as baseless, Globe investigation reveals

Interactive: Will the police believe you? Compare unfounded sex assault rates across Canada

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.'

Read more: How sexual assault survivors look beyond police, courts for justice

With some initial trepidation, she agreed to add her story to the collection I was compiling of sexual assault investigations in Canada. She agreed to request a copy of her police report, which the London Police Service wouldn't release to me for privacy reasons. And we would meet in person later on.

Months later, Ava tearfully showed me a letter that had been silently handed to her by another woman on the GO train after our phone conversation. It read: "I listened to your story briefly but found myself getting SO angry and feeling sick to my stomach. I'm so sorry that you had to go through what you went through and when confronted w/ police, thinking there would be justice, pure ignorance. I'm angry. I'm upset that this is our fucking reality. I know too many others experience similar realities. I hope one day there are better ways to advocate for individuals like you, like me. I thank you for being brave and sharing your story – even if it's 6 years later. Love Sadie"

So often when people talk about sexual assault, they focus on two statistics. First, that fewer than 1 in 10 victims actually report to police. And second, that of the few cases that do make it to court, less than half result in a conviction.

The reasons are varied, but police treatment of victims may be one of the key pieces in understanding these statistics.

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I began working on the project back in June, 2015. At the time, I felt like I couldn't get through a week without finding myself in a conversation about how "the system" was failing sexual assault victims.

In the six months prior, there had been the Jian Ghomeshi case, the fall of Bill Cosby, and the release of a documentary about rape on college campuses called The Hunting Ground, which sparked a conversation on both sides of the border about how institutions deal with sexual assault. (Spoiler alert: not well.)

Early on in my research I came across a study from the University of Ottawa's Blair Crew and researcher Teresa DuBois that looked at something I'd never heard about before: unfounded sexual assault cases.

After a police investigation, when an officer goes to close a case, they give it a code. One of those codes means that the investigator does not believe a crime occurred. Once this happens, the allegation is no longer considered valid and it disappears from local and national statistics.

The study looked at the unfounded averages from seven Ontario police forces. It found the numbers varied wildly between the services, from 2 per cent to 34 per cent, and that three of the seven were dropping more than 30 per cent of all allegations as unfounded.

It was stunning. I had spent my early reporting years as a police reporter and I'd never heard of this.

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Here was evidence that every year potentially thousands of people were coming forward to police – only to have their cases dismissed as unfounded and scrubbed from public record.

There's an idea out there that police don't believe sexual assault complainants, but the evidence never seemed to move beyond the anecdotal. Now, it seemed like there was a way to actually quantify this issue. Canadian police services had been stamping sexual assault investigations with a "true" or "not true" marker all along. All I had to do was get my hands on those numbers.

It turned out, Statistics Canada no longer published that information. (The last numbers available are from 2002, when the national unfounded rate for sexual offences was 16 per cent, while only 7 per cent of other violent crimes were classified in the same way.)

I mailed out the first batch of freedom of information requests in June, 2015, targeting only the country's largest police forces, capital cities and a few rural and smaller communities.

Even though all 50 of them were worded the same, each service had a different reaction. One large police service initially said the Globe would need to pay more than $1,360 for the numbers. A similarly sized force then estimated $120. A slightly smaller one came back with $480. There was $30, $60, $15 and many – particularly outside of Ontario – offered the statistics for free. The estimates seemed completely arbitrary.

The numbers began rolling in over the following months, and they were startling. Across the country, large communities were dismissing 30 per cent, 40 per cent, even 50 per cent of sexual assault allegations as unfounded.

My editors were just as shocked as I was. And then they said something I was not expecting: If we're going to do this, we should look at every jurisdiction in Canada.

That was in March, 2016.

After mailing out another 200 or so to every Canadian police service and then figuring out how I was going to keep track of all the responses and fee estimates and time schedules, I decided to use the extra time to try and tackle the other half of the story. I wanted to hear from complainants themselves about their experience reporting their sexual assaults. I wanted to see if anything else would point to reasons why their cases were falling out of the system at a disproportionate rate.

Over the next six months, I reached out to 100 rape crisis and counselling centres, scoured social media, news reports and went to rallies looking for complainants. I ended up interviewing 54 people about their experience reporting to police.

In most cases, I was able to obtain outside documentation about their story, including police files, court documents, video and audio recordings of police interviews, and medical records. When documentation was not available, I tried to speak with any family, friends or counsellors who accompanied them to meetings with investigators, as well as officials from the involved police service.

I also spoke with more than 100 individuals who regularly work with sexual assault complainants – including advocates, legal scholars, criminologists, trauma experts, Crown attorneys, defence lawyers, and police officers.

More than a year and a half later, what has emerged is a picture of a system that is clearly broken. Change isn't going to come about immediately but there are tangible things that can be done to make it better.

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