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Backing the Philadelphia model is a significant reversal for the Ottawa Police Service, which in December, 2015, after nearly two years of negotiations, rejected a proposal from local advocacy groups to adopt the oversight model.

BLAIR GABLE/REUTERS

The Ottawa Police Service will adopt an external review of sexual assault cases modelled after an oversight program in Philadelphia that has been shown to improve the quality of sex-assault investigations dramatically and reduce the number of complaints dismissed as unfounded.

Inspector Jamie Dunlop said details are still under discussion, but the plan is to provide a review panel of external representatives with full, unredacted investigative documents, plus videotaped interviews and statements. This is in keeping with the framework known as the Philadelphia model, in which advocates for women who have been victims of violence are given access to complete police case files to look for signs of bias and investigative missteps.

The move is a significant reversal for the Ottawa service, which in December, 2015, after nearly two years of negotiations, rejected a proposal from local advocacy groups to adopt the oversight model. At the time, the service said it was advised that privacy laws prohibited sharing case files with civilians.

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Read more: How do you fix a broken system? One U.S. city offers a model for handling sex assault cases

Read more: Why police dismiss 1 in 5 sexual assault claims as baseless

Read more: Will police believe you? Find your region's unfounded sex assault rate

Insp. Dunlop said that since then, the police service has been in talks with Ontario's Information and Privacy Commissioner about its concerns.

"Ottawa police was always in favour of doing this, it's just that we were tripping over privacy," he said.

In February, The Globe and Mail launched an investigative series that revealed one out of every five sex-assault complaints made to Canadian law enforcement is dismissed as unfounded, a term that means the investigating officer does not believe a crime occurred. This was nearly twice the rate at which regular, physical assault cases are closed in the same way.

In response to The Globe's reporting, at least 54 police services have committed to auditing sex-assault cases previously closed as unfounded, but the types of those reviews ranges significantly. Most services appear to be conducting the audits internally, despite warnings from advocates and academics that without outside eyes involved, change is unlikely. Fewer than a dozen services have publicly stated they are open to including external representatives. And of those, none have so far provided full unredacted case files, which experts say is essential for a true assessment.

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Only the Calgary Police Service has committed to continuing case review. The Calgary audit program is also based on Philadelphia's model, although its review panel will not have access to videotaped statements. Staff Sergeant Bruce Walker, the head of the city's sex-crimes unit, says the force will look at that in the future, but for now, it is still grappling with privacy implications.

On Wednesday, Brian Beamish, the Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario, told The Globe in a statement that his office has been working with police services about how to implement the Philadelphia model in a way that complies with privacy legislation.

"It is my view that external review of sexual-assault case files can make an important contribution to improving the investigation of sexual assault complaints while complying with privacy requirements, including through the use of agreements, oaths of confidentiality and privacy and confidentiality training," Mr. Beamish said in the statement.

In Ottawa, Insp. Dunlop said the review panel – which will likely include front-line advocates, an academic with experience in the violence against women field, and someone with a legal background – will be asked to sign confidentiality agreements, and no police material can leave the station.

Erin Leigh, executive director of the Ottawa Coalition to End Violence Against Women and one of the local advocates who presented the Philadelphia model to the service in 2014, said talks resumed in March.

"Reviews really need to be front-line violence-against-women advocates," she said. "That's where the expertise lies. And models that deviate from that won't have the same effectiveness."

The findings of a 20-month long investigation expose deep flaws in the way Canadian police forces handle sexual assault allegations. The Globe's Robyn Doolittle explains.
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