Inside North Bay's struggle to change how they handle sexual assault cases
The police service knew it had a problem – and wanted to fix it. But with limited resources, an audit of its policy and procedures wasn’t possible. The situation is emblematic of the struggles small, cash-strapped police forces across the country are facing
In this small Northern Ontario city, the chief of police knows the service has a problem with sexual-assault cases. And he wants to do something about it.
Last year, a team of officers partnered with Nipissing University and mapped out a five-stage strategy to overhaul their approach to sex-assault investigations, starting with a full audit of case files by criminology masters students, a policy and procedure review, and then an audit of best practices elsewhere. Chief Shawn Devine wants to implement an oversight model similar to the one in place in Philadelphia, where once a year, outside advocacy groups are invited to sit down with high-ranking officers and go through sexual-assault case files.
Unfounded: The Globe investigates how police handle sexual assault cases in Canada
There’s just one problem, the chief says. The North Bay service, which polices a community of 59,000 people and has fewer than 100 sworn officers, doesn’t have the money, staff or expertise to do a comprehensive review on its own.
The service applied for a $126,000 provincial grant, which the Ontario government established to help police forces address sexual violence. The money, which North Bay asked for over a two-year period, would be used to cover the cost of specialized computer software, office space and equipment at the university, the masters students and supervisory support from faculty, travel expenses and a modest training budget.
“Being a small police service with limited resources, the North Bay Police Service is unable to employ a full-time analyst,” the grant application read. “Without [the grant], it will not be possible for the service to collect the necessary data and information upon which to base decisions.”
In late December, the province declined the application, in part, because of a lack of local statistics to illustrate need in the community.
North Bay is emblematic of the struggles many small, resource-strapped municipal police services across the country face. A 20-month Globe and Mail investigation has revealed that small cities are more likely to have higher sexual-assault unfounded rates – meaning police officers are more likely to dismiss allegations as baseless – than small towns and large urban areas.
Will they believe you?find your police jurisdiction
Nationally, Canadian police services were closing 1 out of every 5 sex-assault allegations as unfounded. But in police jurisdictions with populations between 30,000 and 100,000, The Globe’s data showed that the unfounded rate was at least 1 in 4.
Legal experts, criminologists and law-enforcement officials interviewed by The Globe say there are a few possible explanations for the discrepancies. The larger the police service, the bigger the budget, with more opportunities for training, mentoring and specialization. Smaller communities have to do more with less. In North Bay, the training budget for the entire service is less than $100,000 a year, which doesn’t go far once travel costs are considered. The departments don’t have the spare bodies to form dedicated units for specific types of crime, so officers are left juggling all manner of cases, from vandalism to noise complaints to sexual assaults. And while big-city forces have civilian-crime analysts to collect and evaluate the data for trends, small forces are often flying blind.
North Bay police officers, for example, are closing an average of 44 per cent of sex-assault cases as unfounded, but Deputy Chief Scott Tod says that until The Globe had them produce the data last year through a freedom-of-information request, they had no idea. Because police services are no longer required to report unfounded numbers to Statistics Canada – that practice stopped in 2002 – the issue fell off the radar.
“We couldn’t believe it, but we checked the numbers, and they were right,” the deputy said.
At the time of The Globe’s inquiries, the service had already begun rethinking its approach to sex-assault investigations. Chief Devine says he started to realize there was a problem about four years ago, when he joined the board of Amelia Rising, Nipissing’s sexual-assault centre. It was there that he got to appreciate how trauma can impact a victim’s ability to remember an incident and that some police techniques can be counterproductive. For example, investigators often want a complainant to go through an incident chronologically, but a traumatized person may not be able to do this. A better way to approach an interview is to ask them what they do remember and build off of that.
“It has really opened my eyes to the other side,” he said. “The other piece is I’m still a police officer and we’re geared to do investigations in certain ways … it leads to some interesting conversations.”
It was through Amelia Rising that Chief Devine first heard about the Philadelphia Model and the success it’s had in the United States. The oversight program has been in place for 17 years and in that time, the city’s unfounded rates have plunged from 18 per cent to 4 per cent. The chief said he liked the idea of getting case feedback from advocates, who have a different perspective.
“The idea is not to come in and find fault and point fingers,” he said. “The idea is to come in and say ‘okay, are there areas where we can do things different?’ The intent is to improve, not to find fault.”
In the wake of The Globe’s Unfounded investigation, more than 30 Canadian police services, including the RCMP and OPP, have announced plans to review unfounded cases. But only North Bay has so far come out and said they are open to inviting advocacy groups into the audit process. Last year, the Ottawa Police Service formally rejected the Philadelphia Model after two years of negotiations with local advocacy groups, citing reasons of privacy.
Before the grant application was rejected, Deputy Chief Tod said the plan was to give the criminology masters students full access to investigative sex-assault files – they would sign confidentiality agreements – during the academic phase of the review. From there, they would compile a set of best practices for addressing sexual violence from around the world, hold focus groups with various stakeholders, including victims, and collect and analyze crime data to identify problems – for example, is it possible a handful of officers were miscoding unfounded cases, skewing the overall stats? At the end of the process, they would write a comprehensive report on their research, which would be made public.
Without the external funding, they will have to get creative and less ambitious with their reform plans, he said, but at the very least, they will continue to pursue the oversight group with Amelia Rising.
Chief Devine said he still has some questions and concerns about how the program, largely around privacy issues for victim information, but says he wants to find a way to make it work.
“If we have the same detectives looking at the same cases, then the results are likely going to be the same. Whomever we partner with, they are going to bring their own viewpoint. Whether it’s a feminist viewpoint or the advocacy perspective … all together, the end result is we’re going to have a better product. I think this is a win-win.”
Robyn Doolittle is a reporter with The Globe and Mail’s investigative team.
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