Law-enforcement officials in Quebec are examining a new way of handling sexual assault in which outside advocates would review cases that police dismiss as unfounded.
Public Security Minister Martin Coiteux said on Thursday the Quebec bar association and the province's two biggest police forces – the Montreal police and the Sûreté du Québec – have struck a working group to look at how they might change the approach to such cases, including the potential adoption of external reviews, known as the Philadelphia model.
Police in Gatineau are planning a pilot project for their own version of the model in which, every few months, police would invite external advocates to review cases dismissed as unfounded and make recommendations for improved handling.
A Globe and Mail investigation found that one in five sexual-assault cases is classified as unfounded, meaning police believe no crime took place. The rate is nearly double that for physical assault. "We will work with the bar association to look at our practices, and in particular the Philadelphia model," Mr. Coiteux said. "We will examine it with experts and interest groups to look at it attentively and if we can transpose it to here, we will."
For the past 17 years, Philadelphia's police force has invited advocates and representatives of a legal centre devoted to women and girls' rights to search sexual-assault files with high-ranking officers for deficiencies and biases every year. In that time, the city's rate for unfounded rape cases has dropped to 4 per cent, contrasted with the U.S. national average of about 7 per cent.
In Gatineau, victims' advocacy organizations already have offices in the police department, where they work with investigators and victims. But before it can start reviewing police files and practices, the force is researching how to fit the new process into their tight legal framework. They have to guarantee everything from due process to victims' privacy, according to Mariane Leduc, spokeswoman and head of community relations with the Gatineau police force.
Still, the force is keen to take the next step, Ms. Leduc said.
"Our investigators do an excellent job and care deeply about our victims. Why wouldn't we take an opportunity to improve what we do?" Ms. Leduc said.
Since The Globe's investigation was launched, at least 54 police forces, including those covering most of the population of Quebec, have decided to audit sexual-assault cases that have been classified as unfounded.
This week, the SQ announced it has reviewed about 800 cases from 2014 to 2016 and discovered dozens of them should have been classified as "unsolved" rather than "unfounded."
"It was generally because a victim refused to complain or withdrew a complaint," SQ spokeswoman Martine Asselin told La Presse. The SQ's unfounded rate was closer to 12 per cent than the 21 per cent officers initially reported, she said. The Quebec average is 17 per cent.
The force did not re-examine the merits of any of the cases, but the province had already launched a process in which a Public Security Ministry team will investigate police practices in relation to sexual assault, including the unfounded question.
Mr. Coiteux said he "would not be satisfied" if the SQ's accounting practices were the only thing under scrutiny, he said. "It's a first step, but there are other steps still to come. We're not stopping here," he said.
The steps by the provincial government struck one advocate as exceedingly tentative.
"It doesn't feel like the province is being very proactive or that their ideas are very concrete," said Stéphanie Tremblay, a spokeswoman for Quebec victims' advocate associations. "We're a long way from the province actually doing anything."
Ms. Tremblay noted that the goals of her group, Regroupement québécois des CALACS, are relatively simple: To increase the low rate of sexual-assault victims who bring complaints and to improve the investigation and prosecution of those complaints when they are brought forward.
"Changing some classifications of files doesn't get us anywhere. The treatment is superficial and disappointing."
Ms. Tremblay said she is heartened by the Gatineau initiative, but it should not be left to a patchwork of well-meaning local forces. "We need to dismantle the myths and prejudices surrounding sexual assault in our society that police officers bring with them," she said. "It's not something that should only be done on a local level."
The Gatineau police force has no timeline for its pilot project, and the province has no schedule for the investigation of police practices or for findings of the working group with the bar association.