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Calgary Police Service chief Roger Chaffin speaks during an interview with The Canadian Press in Calgary, on Dec. 7, 2016. The Calgary Police Service has become the first department in the country to commit to ongoing external review of sex-assault cases by front-line advocates.Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

The Calgary Police Service has become the first department in the country to commit to ongoing external review of sex-assault cases by front-line advocates.

That initiative, which is modelled after an outside oversight program that has helped Philadelphia's unfounded rate plummet to 4 per cent from 18 per cent, will involve representatives of local sex-assault centres, medical staff and an official with Alberta's Ministry of the Status of Women.

Calgary police announced the initiative at a news conference on Thursday, and the committee met for the first time immediately afterward. The group will begin auditing cases closed in the first part of 2017, and will meet at least three times a year.

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Staff Sergeant Bruce Walker, the head of Calgary's sex-crimes unit, said the service has been working on the initiative since February, when a Globe and Mail series revealed that one out of every five sex-assault allegations made to Canadian police is closed as unfounded – a term that means the investigating officer does not believe a crime occurred or was attempted.

"It certainly showed some of the deficiencies and inefficiencies in how we do business," Staff Sgt. Walker said. Calgary's unfounded rate was 10 per cent. "Our rate was lower than the average," he said, "so our members do do good work – but we can always do better."

Adopting the Philadelphia model, a program that gives local violence-against-women advocates access to sex-assault case files to look for signs of investigative missteps or bias, was "the right thing to do," he said.

"This is definitely bold action by the Calgary police, and we applaud them for taking this leadership," Stephanie McLean, Alberta's Minister of Status of Women, told The Globe and Mail.

"We have been, through the Department of Justice and in concert with the Status of Women, working on provincial guidelines for sex-assault cases so we can ensure consistency … and I think Calgary adopting this gold-standard, the Philadelphia model, will be a shining example for the rest of the province."

The Calgary Police Service is one of 54 police departments in Canada to commit to reviewing unfounded sex-assault cases in response to The Globe's series. Staff Sgt. Walker said the force decided on a two-pronged approach. One process will deal with old cases and another for new cases. The latter resulted in the external committee.

A senior investigator within the Calgary department was assigned to audit cases going back to 2012. That review examined 175 files that had been closed as unfounded. Of the files reviewed in Calgary, 48 were deemed to have been improperly coded as unfounded, and in one instance the officer concluded the case should be reopened and reinvestigated.

About a third of the country's law-enforcement agencies have announced reviews of unfounded sexual-assault cases, although the approach and scope differ wildly from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Some police services are looking only at whether the file was coded correctly – unfounded is to be used when the investigating officer does not believe a crime occurred, not if there is not enough evidence to lay a charge or if a suspect cannot be located. Other services are going into the investigative notes to see if any of the officer's actions may have contributed to the case being improperly classified as unfounded.

Moreover, most police services appear to be tackling these audits with internal staff. Others are using outside or retired police officers. Only a handful of departments have publicly committed to include external eyes.

Sunny Marriner, the executive director of the Ottawa Rape Crisis Centre, who has been spearheading the campaign to bring advocate case review to Canada, said the inconsistency in the reviews is a problem.

"It's great that they're responding, but it's also important that we don't have a completely scattershot, random approach," she said. "There is a best practice, we have a model, it's available for police and communities to implement, and it's my hope we can develop more consistency in the roll-out so that we don't implement things that may fail down the line."

Ms. Marriner estimates she has met with more than 20 sex-assault centres and police services in recent months to discuss the Philadelphia model – and more specifically a framework for the program that takes into account differences between Canada and the United States, such as privacy legislation.

In Calgary, Staff Sgt. Walker said some details of the ongoing review are still being worked out. At present, the committee will be given access to the full investigative paper file, with the names and addresses of the individuals involved redacted, but the police service is still working with privacy officials to determine if they can be given access to video and audio interviews. Additionally, Philadelphia's review panel looks at all unfounded cases and a random sample of other sexual-assault files. He said that Calgary police will start with unfounded cases, but could consider adding other cases in the future.

For near two years a team of Globe journalists, including investigative reporter Robyn Doolittle, dug into the figures and the people behind alleged sexual assault cases which police can deem "unfounded.'

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