- London Police to audit every incident that was dismissed as 'unfounded' going back to 2010
- Two federal cabinet ministers and Justin Trudeau's chief of staff emphasize need for fair treatment of victims
- Mandatory specialized training for officers, Crown attorneys and judges called for at Tory leadership debate
Ontario's London Police Service will conduct a sweeping review of how its officers handle sexual-assault allegations, an audit that will include probing hundreds of cases dating back to 2010 that were dismissed as unfounded – a police term that means the detective believes the complaint is baseless.
The move follows an investigation by The Globe and Mail into the handling of sexual-assault cases by Canadian police forces. The investigation revealed that officers are closing sexual-assault allegations as unfounded at a rate much higher than other serious crimes.
The investigation triggered swift responses from federal Liberal cabinet ministers, who appeared concerned by the revelations.
"The Unfounded series highlighted important differences between how police forces across the country investigate sexual assault.
"We look forward to discussing the issues it raised with the RCMP, and we hope the many other police forces in Canada do as well. No victim should fear that their case won't be taken seriously by the police," Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale's office said in a statement.
During the Conservative Party debate in Halifax, leadership candidates urged the Liberals to address the problem.
"I call upon this Trudeau government today to ensure that in their budget they have money to make sure that [front-line officers] have the appropriate training so we don't send our daughters to places where they can't get justice," Lisa Raitt told the audience Saturday.
On Sunday, London police Chief John Pare told The Globe that his service will be reviewing every unfounded sex assault case going back to 2010, which is more than 690 cases.
"I think it's fair to say that the outcome of the [Globe] report really didn't reflect well. Once we became aware of it, we decided that it was best for our community to do a thorough review of the manner in which sexual violence investigations are conducted," Chief Pare said.
A 20-month Globe and Mail investigation has revealed that Canadian police services are closing one out of every five sexual-assault complaints as unfounded, meaning that in the eyes of the investigator, no crime occurred. Once an allegation is deemed unfounded, it is scrubbed from public record and is no longer reflected in local or national statistics. The Globe's analysis, which examined statistics between 2010 and 2014, found that police are closing 19.39 per cent of sexual-assault allegations as unfounded – nearly double the rate for physical assaults (10.84 per cent). Moreover, the sex-assault unfounded rates varied wildly from city to city. For example, in Windsor, Ont., just 3 per cent of cases end up unfounded.
But two hours east, in London, the rate was 30 per cent, giving London one of the highest unfounded rates in the country among large cities.
One of those cases involved a young woman named Ava, who, in October, 2010, told London police she had been raped at a keg party while heavily intoxicated. The detective in charge of the investigation closed the case as unfounded after giving the suspect a warning. That officer is now the subject of an internal professional standards investigation, after The Globe highlighted numerous problems with the investigation, including that the detective seemed to pressure Ava, then an 18-year-old Western University student, into agreeing the sex had been consensual. Ava's case has been reclassified as a founded complaint.
Chief Pare said he also plans to meet with local advocacy groups starting this week to discuss new training measures for officers.
On Saturday, Ms. Raitt told the crowd in Halifax that specialized sexual assault training should be mandatory for police officers.
"If the girls are coming forward and talking about an assault that happened to them, then we need to make sure that our front line has the best training there is so that they can understand the frailties of the victim that they're dealing with," she said, adding that Crown attorneys and judges should also receive special training.
On Sunday, two other federal cabinet ministers responded to The Globe's revelations about the country's unfounded rates for sexual assault.
"Our government is unwavering in its commitment to ensure that victims of sexual assault are treated with respect and dignity," Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould said in a statement.
Maryam Monsef, the Minister of Status of Women, said in a statement: "There is more to be done to keep women and girls in our country safe and our government is committed to doing just that. The Globe and Mail's work in bringing this issue to the forefront of public discourse is so important, and we know that there is still so much that needs to be done."
Neither minister detailed specific action the government would consider.
On Twitter, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's chief of staff Katie Telford, posted a link to The Globe's Unfounded project, captioned: "Important work for us all still to do."
In London, Chief Pare says he will be relying on advocacy groups in the city to help prioritize what kind of training may be needed, but that consent law and a better understanding of how victims respond to traumatic events are areas that will likely be covered.
"I think that's where our community partners are going to be able to assist us. The victimology and some of the challenges with dealing with matters of consent or around memory," he said.
Issues around consent and memory were prominent in Ava's 2010 sexual assault case. During her police interview, the detective repeatedly challenged Ava's assertion that she could not remember large chunks of the night, including the period immediately preceding the alleged rape.
Chief Pare said the first focus of the service's review will be to ensure London police officers are using the unfounded closure code correctly. True unfounded allegations are rare. The designation is only to be used when an investigation proves no criminal offence occurred. It is not the same thing as when there is not enough evidence to lay a charge or if a complainant does not want to proceed with an investigation.
Asked if the service would be reopening cases that are found to have been misclassified, Chief Pare said that he doesn't want to speculate on what they might find. "There will be some circumstances in there that may have been the reason why it was unfounded and if there's some grey area, obviously we have to look at that as well and make sure that everything that should have been done has been done," he said.
Megan Walker, the executive director of the London Abused Women's Centre, said that she has been in touch with the chief and believes the service is sincere in wanting to do better.
"I am confident that this is being taken very seriously," she said. "I've worked with the London police for 20 years. Like all us, there are some things that they do really well and there are some things that they don't. And every single time [I have brought a problem to them], we have addressed the issues," she said.
She will be meeting with the chief on Monday to discuss next steps.
With a report from Erin Anderssen
Have you reported a sexual assault to the police? If you would be willing to share your experience with The Globe and Mail, please email email@example.com