Ontario's Minister of Community Safety says she feels "very strongly" that police services should consider outside oversight of sexual-assault case files. Her comments come as police services across the country have pledged to review more than 10,000 sexual-assault complaints in the wake of a Globe and Mail investigation.
Marie-France Lalonde said she is open to implementing the so-called Philadelphia Model, a civilian oversight program that invites frontline advocacy groups to review sex-assault files alongside senior officers once a year. Since the program has been running in that city, Philadelphia's unfounded rates have plummeted from 18 per cent to just 4 per cent.
"I would like to have that conversation with our chiefs of police and look at those options," said Ms. Lalonde, who was appointed to the community safety post in January.
"Do I think that one single model is the key for all? … Each municipality has their own issues when it comes to how to address sexual violence. [But] I would like to think that we should at least consider what the Philadelphia Model could bring."
After The Globe and Mail revealed that Canadian police services are dismissing one out of every five sex-assault allegations as unfounded – meaning no crime occurred or was attempted – Ms. Lalonde says she has urged Ontario's police services boards and chiefs to examine their "policies and procedures" around how sex-assault investigations are conducted and to report their findings back to the ministry.
Ms. Lalonde spoke to The Globe Tuesday, a day before the Ontario government is to announce $1.8-million in provincial funding aimed at making it easier for victims of sexual violence to report to police.
The province is approving 15 pilot projects from Ontario police services. The Brantford Police Service is among the recipients after putting together a proposal to review past sexual-assault investigations and develop new training based on its findings. (Brantford, which will receive $147,165 over two years, had a 30-per-cent unfounded rate, according to The Globe's data.)
Sunny Marriner, who has been leading the campaign to bring the Philadelphia Model to Canada, said she is encouraged that so many police services have committed to re-examining unfounded cases, but she cautions that an internal review is not going to lead to change.
"We want police to bring in the advocates who have proven expertise in understanding the issues that lead to improper unfounding," said Ms. Marriner, who is the executive director of the Ottawa Rape Crisis Centre.
Deb Tomlinson, who heads the Association of Alberta Sexual Assault Services, expressed concern that police services may be rushing into case audits without a consistent framework or clear mandate.
While more than 30 services have announced reviews so far, only North Bay has said it is interested in involving outside expertise in that review. All other services have indicated they plan to keep the audit strictly internal. Some of the services, such as London, have pledged to look at the quality of the investigation. But the majority have not specified what their reviews will entail.
Several departments, including Halton in Ontario and Central Saanich in British Columbia, have told The Globe that high sexual-assault unfounded rates are likely due to coding errors – officers misunderstanding that the unfounded code is only to be used in the rare instance when there is proof that a crime did not occur – rather than investigative missteps.
"They absolutely need to consider how the case was handled. Particularly because none of us are immune from myths and stereotypes about sexual assault," Ms. Tomlinson said.
Last week, federal Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale called on police investigators "to re-examine all of their approaches, all of their procedures, all of the ways that cases are managed." But at the provincial level, the response has been a patchwork of approaches.
In Nova Scotia, Minister of Justice Diana Whalen has instructed police services to "make sure investigations are conducted thoroughly and that their policies and procedures are followed appropriately," a spokesperson said in a statement.
In British Columbia, Mike Morris, the Minister of Public Safety and Solicitor-General, is not pushing for a province-wide review.
"I'm going to leave that up to them," he said in an interview Tuesday. "It could be as simple as misinterpreting a lot of the crime reporting from Stats Canada. … But it could be also, maybe somebody has missed something in the file."
Meanwhile, a spokesperson with Prince Edward Island's Department of Justice and Public Safety says a review was ordered and the findings are expected shortly. They provided no details on the scope of the audit.
Before becoming minister of community safety, Ms. Lalonde sat on the province's Select Committee on Sexual Violence and Harassment, which in December, 2015, recommended that the province consider adopting an oversight model similar to the one in Philadelphia.
Philadelphia's oversight model was created 17 years ago after a series of stories in The Philadelphia Inquirer revealed the service had been mishandling sex-assault cases for decades. Since then, once a year, advocacy groups are invited to review the department's sex-assault files alongside senior officers for deficiencies and signs of bias.
Ms. Lalonde said while it would be premature to commit to anything, she would like to explore options with the province's police services as they re-examine their approach to sex-assault files.
The minister said in the meantime, she is very proud of the pilot projects that will be launching across the province as a result of the provincial grants. In total, the government received 22 applications and 15 were selected.
Among the winners was a proposal from the Kirkland Lake OPP detachment to create a "private and secure" interview space for victims outside of the station, a plan from the Windsor Police Service to create an online tool that would allow complainants to report a crime from home and a new trauma-informed training initiative from the Kingston police force.
With a report from Justine Hunter