In the months before The Globe and Mail published an investigation of how Canadian police forces handle sex-assault cases, a national network of media relations officers from dozens of the country’s largest police departments spent weeks behind the scenes co-ordinating a response to the story, with the head of the Ontario branch suggesting services form a united front and decline to address the issues it raised.

Unfounded: The Globe investigates how police handle sexual assault cases in Canada

    The Globe obtained more than 250 pages of these e-mail conversations through Freedom of Information requests.

    The discussion is a window into how police services seek to manage the message when confronted with potentially unflattering coverage, and reveals – among some organizations – a deep frustration with journalists, a lack of understanding about Access to Information laws and a resistance to transparency.

    The 15 question survey sent by The Globe

    In June of 2015, The Globe began investigating the rate at which police forces dismiss sex-assault complaints as unfounded – a term that means the investigator does not believe a crime occurred or was attempted.

    Using Freedom of Information laws, sex-assault statistics were requested from more than 1,100 police jurisdictions – a process that took nearly a year and a half.

    In November of 2016 – three months before the Unfounded series launched – The Globe sent a 15-question survey to more than 100 police departments.

    The survey included a summary of the preliminary findings, including the fact that one in five sexual assaults in Canada is dismissed as unfounded, and that the rates fluctuated from single digits in one city to more than 30 per cent in a neighbouring one.

    Among the questions asked: Does your service have a sex-assault unit? Is it mandatory for an officer to have specialized sexual-assault training before handling such crimes? And do senior officers ever review sex-assault cases to determine whether the investigation was thorough? Each service was also given a chance to comment on its unfounded rate.

    When confronted with details that appeared to show that Canadian police services disproportionally dismiss sex-assault cases – the data showed sex-assault complaints are nearly twice as likely to be designated invalid as allegations of physical assault – the reaction in some quarters of Canadian law enforcement was to focus on damage control. In the end, the responses to The Globe’s survey were as divergent as the unfounded rates themselves, with some services providing detailed answers, others offering senior officers for interviews or submitting partial responses, while the majority ignored the request or refused to comment.

    ‘Recommend ignore’

    Within days of The Globe’s November e-mails, dozens of Canada’s most senior police communications officials and representatives of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police (CACP) and the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police (OACP) were debating a national strategy for responding.

    “The best answer here might be to decline, especially if we do it as a group with the same message,” Kathleen Griffin, the manager of corporate communications for the York Regional Police service, who at the time was also chair of the Ontario Media Relations Officers Network, a committee affiliated with the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police.

    Email from Kathleen Griffin, the director of communications with the York Regional Police Service

    “I am rather tired of spending hours and hours of time gathering all this detailed information and statistics for reporters who will only use it to write negative stories about police. Why should we participate?” Ms. Griffin wrote in another e-mail.

    “I totally agree,” replied Mariane Leduc of the municipal force in Gatineau, Que.

    Jim Butticci of the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) added that while he had not yet seen the Globe’s request: “Would side with Kathleen and recommend ignore.”

    Numerous forces suggested The Globe be required to submit the questions through the Freedom of Information process, even though the legislation is for obtaining records only, not for asking questions.

    In the end, only 18 of the more than 100 Canadian police services that received the survey provided lengthy answers. This group included large and small services from urban and rural jurisdictions, including Ontario’s Toronto and Peterborough services, Quebec’s Châteauguay and Roussillon forces, Manitoba’s Rivers Police Service, British Columbia’s Delta and Abbotsford departments, and New Brunswick’s Woodstock and Edmundston police services. More than a dozen others promised to reply but never did, and 17 formally declined to answer, including the RCMP and the OPP. Of those, 10 police services sent the same 200-word letter, which stated: “We do not believe it is in the public interest to pull staff from their core duties to respond to your request.”

    Included in that group were some of the largest municipal forces, including Halton, York and Niagara.

    Policed Population:
    Unfounded sexual assault 5-year rate

    That form letter was crafted by Ms. Griffin, whose York Regional Police service had one of the highest unfounded rates of any large Canadian force, dismissing 31 per cent of sexual-assault allegations as baseless. The national rate was 19 per cent, which experts say is already very high.

    Once a case is classified as unfounded, it is no longer considered a valid complainant and it is not reflected in local or national statistics.

    The genesis of the network

    Since The Globe’s Unfounded series launched, at least 54 police services – about a third of the country’s law-enforcement agencies – have publicly pledged to audit unfounded cases of sexual assault, as well as their organization’s policies and practices on investigating sexual violence. York is among those services. But advocates and academics have questioned whether these reviews are true attempts to reform or public-relations exercises.

    Joe Couto, director of government relations and communications with the OACP, said police are taking the issues raised in the Unfounded investigation very seriously – including concerns that forces were not transparent during the reporting.

    “We have to learn from the experience we had with [The Globe],” he said. “Just like we have to learn because of [the Unfounded] series, police services, police organizations are now doing something about the important issues [the reporting] raised about sexual assault, how we investigate them, how they’re coded. … By no means are we perfect in our jobs.”

    Mr. Couto said the role of the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police is to support the province’s police services, and one of the most common requests is for help with media relations – questions such as: “How do I respond to this? What are the legal implications of this? What kind of information can I provide?”

    This was the genesis of the Ontario Media Relations Officers Network. Mr. Couto said the goal is to discuss issues that are coming up in multiple jurisdictions and to provide background and key message suggestions. Mr. Couto stresses the individual police services always make the final decision, and that identical responses are not supposed to happen. (Some of the services on the e-mail chain did co-operate with The Globe.)

    “When I hear that somebody has essentially copy and pasted something and then sent it to you, that’s not really what we encourage people to do. That’s not engaging with you as a reporter. That’s not really looking at the issues that you raised from a police-service level,” he said.

    The e-mail chain

    The e-mail conversations obtained by The Globe occurred over two weeks in mid-November, three months before the release of the Unfounded series.

    On Nov. 9, Ms. Leduc of Gatineau e-mailed the national network to say that “a few months ago, we all exchanged e-mails regarding the Globe and Mail [which was] requesting lots of statistics from every police service in Canada.” The communications director wanted to give everyone a heads-up that her service had received the 15 questions and that others might also get them.

    “We could maybe quickly chat about it at our conference call next week,” she wrote to the chain, which included representatives of the RCMP, OPP, Sûreté du Québec, Royal Newfoundland Constabulary and municipal services in every other province.

    Over the next few days, people in the chain updated each other on when they received requests and their organizations’ plans.

    Representatives from Winnipeg, Saskatoon and the RCMP told the group they were still debating how to handle the survey.

    “The staff sergeant in our sex assault section plans to have a phone discussion with [the reporter],” Patrycia Thenu of the Edmonton police force wrote.

    “We have not made a decision,” the RCMP’s Julie Gagnon wrote.

    “Please keep us updated on how you handle it,” Shannon Kerr of Cape Breton Regional Police wrote.

    By Nov. 11, the chair of the Ontario group, Ms. Griffin, sent a note to the Ontario media-relations network with an update on discussions she had with the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police communications group.

    “We may consider one standard response.”

    Constable Andy Drouillard of the Windsor Police Service replied:

    “This is definitely the most lengthy and detailed request I have seen. Is this a request to write a book? I agree a joint response would be beneficial to everyone.”

    On Nov. 14, the national network held a conference call to discuss The Globe’s request.

    “We agreed that a unified statement in our responses would be positive, although each service would be responsible for ‘how’ they respond overall,” Tim Smith, government relations and strategic communications representative for the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, wrote to the group later.

    That same day, Dawn Roberts of the RCMP e-mailed Ms. Griffin some “suggested messaging” for a response, which included: “As a collective the policing community works together to identify trends, gaps or challenges, while also sharing best practices in areas that assist in reducing the victims of crime.”

    Ms. Griffin included the line in the 200-word message she prepared later that afternoon and distributed to the group.

    Email from Tim Smith, of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police

    “Thank YOUUUU!” Mr. Smith replied.

    “It’s partly our responsibility to educate [the reporter] and perhaps she may second guess some of the conclusions she seems to be making or at least provide better context. … Are each of you able to give us an indication if you will be using this information and if you are providing more detailed information in your response?”

    On Nov. 15, Mr. Couto of the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police e-mailed a memorandum to the Ontario network with the boilerplate message.

    The suggested standard response to The Globe's request

    “Many of you requested a standard response … we ask you to confirm with us whether your service will be using the messaging provided and whether you are going to provide additional information to the reporter in response to her request.”

    That afternoon, Michelle Dassinger, the corporate communications manager of the Peel Regional Police Service, wrote to Ms. Griffin stating that her “executive” supported joining the network messaging “assuming we have agreement from most of the other agencies. Do you have any idea how many other agencies are on board?”

    Ms. Griffin replied 15 minutes later: “So far Gatineau, Saskatoon, Regina, Fredericton, Guelph and Chatham Kent … we too are in agreement of course. Maybe Tim [from CACP] and Joe [from OACP] can re-send their messages tomorrow asking for services who will use the message to please let us know.”

    (The Regina force initially declined to comment, but later provided a short interview.)

    ‘We can always do better’

    A total of 10 police services used the boilerplate message, while four others wrote their own, borrowing some of its language.

    Ms. Dassinger explained in a recent e-mail to The Globe that Peel “considered using the joint response proposed by the larger group. [But] first, we wanted to understand which agencies were participating, and in what way. In the end, we decided not to proceed with it.”

    The Globe contacted Ms. Griffin in late April for an interview regarding these communications, particularly the boilerplate letter. In an e-mailed response, she wrote that as chair of the Ontario Media Relations Officer Network, she took the lead in writing the letter. “Your message says you noticed that 10 responses were identical without acknowledging that your requests to more than 100 police services were also, in fact, identical,” she wrote in an e-mail. “It was then left to individual police services to decide how they would respond.”

    Echoing some of the complainants in the e-mail debates, Ms. Griffin said police services were concerned The Globe would compare statistics from police services that were not comparable.

    Mr. Smith of the CACP said police organizations communicate with each other on “a wide-variety of policing issues,” including federal legislation, best practices and common concerns such as the fentanyl crisis.

    “We also try to seek, where practical, common messaging and provide support to smaller services who may not have the training internally or the resources to respond,” Mr. Smith wrote to The Globe in an e-mail.

    “While police services aim to become more and more transparent, the rapidly growing number of national requests by media, on top of local media requests and the many other responsibilities of communications people, do challenge the resources police services have in place to respond.”

    Mr. Smith added that there was indeed “frustration” over The Globe’s survey, particularly the level of detail and the time-frame. (The survey stated that a response would be appreciated within a week, and twice stated it would not be a problem if it took more time. Almost every service that did respond to the survey – including many of the ones that ultimately refused to comment – asked for extra time.)

    “The outcome of [The Globe’s] research should be commended and will indeed lead to changes within the policing community. We are also very cognizant that we can always do better and will always strive to do so,” he wrote.

    “We are taking this issue very seriously and I hope that you will recognize the positive actions taken by the CACP and police services throughout Canada in response.”

    Negative stories

    In April, Statistics Canada announced it will resume collecting and publishing data on unfounded crime in response to The Globe’s investigation. This came at the recommendation of the Police Information and Statistics Committee (POLIS), a subcommittee of the CACP.

    The federal statistics agency stopped releasing unfounded numbers 14 years ago over concerns that police were misusing the classification.

    Ms. Leduc of the Gatineau police service told The Globe that, in her department, she and two media relations officers manage all requests and social media, and develop public relations campaigns.

    “The networking group has been very useful to share campaigns and communications tools, crime prevention messages or just brainstorm on different subjects,” she said. “We face similar challenges throughout the country. Guns and gangs crimes, fentanyl and other drug related issues. … If we can translate and adapt communications tools to our reality, we all win: We save time and money, we prevent victimization.”

    Ms. Leduc said it can be frustrating that the media seem to cover mostly negative stories about police when she and her team witness so many good moments.

    “I want to be clear that we all put the time and effort because we do believe that communication is important and that, as an organization, the population has the right to be informed and media plays an important role. And yes, often, we do feel that the great job that we see every day within our walls or on the streets is not recognized nor valued. … We are not perfect for sure. We are just human beings. So yes, sometimes, it can be frustrating to see that mainly negative stories are covered.”

    Robyn Doolittle is a reporter with The Globe and Mail’s investigative team.

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