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Nicole Xu/The Globe and Mail

Ontario Provincial Police officers who investigate sexual assault will soon receive new training, more supervision, additional resources and external scrutiny from local victim-support groups.

The OPP, one of the country's largest police services, with more than 6,200 officers, will roll out the changes in the coming months, beginning with the creation of a specialized group of high-ranking officers who will personally monitor every unresolved sex assault case.

The service will also create five regional review committees inspired by an internationally lauded oversight model in Philadelphia, in which advocates who work with female victims of violence can examine case files for signs of bias and investigative missteps.

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These changes follow a seven-month internal review by the OPP in response to a Globe and Mail investigation that revealed that, nationally, one of every five sexual assault allegations is dismissed by police as unfounded, a coding term that means the officer does not believe a crime occurred.

As a result of the OPP's audit, 12 files were reinvestigated. One resulted in a charge, and that case is before the courts. In that instance, a witness was discovered who had not been interviewed.

As part of its audit, the OPP examined 5,322 sexual assault cases from 2010 to 2016 that had been deemed unfounded. A report on that review pointed to administrative coding errors as a reason for the OPP's unfounded rate of 34 per cent, one of the highest of a major police service in the country.

A total of 1,859 cases "could potentially have been cleared using another [coding] classification," a report summary states.

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If this is the case, it would have significant implications for the OPP's sexual assault statistics, because once a file is deemed unfounded, it is no longer considered a valid allegation. It is removed from the total number of complaints the police service reports to Statistics Canada.

The OPP will not reclassify old cases, but plans to create new administrative positions in each jurisdiction to handle coding, which will provide more consistency and free up officers to concentrate on police work. Apart from coding errors, the OPP's review team, which included several dozen officers throughout the province, flagged investigative issues in 424 cases.

"Most of the time the information was there. It just wasn't in the right place," said Superintendent Jim Smyth, who was one of three senior OPP officers who met with The Globe on Thursday to discuss the organization's findings. Sometimes, he said, when it was obvious that a case was not going to result in a charge, investigators shifted their attention before completing all the necessary paperwork, such as adding interview transcripts to the sex assault file.

"From the investigators' perspective … all your priorities go to the things that are going to end up in court, what's going to be reviewed by Crowns and judges. And sometimes those other ones just keep going farther and farther down your to-do list," the Superintendent said.

"We had very few actual deficiencies. That was the good-news story out of this," the Superintendent said.

Nevertheless, the OPP have plans to overhaul the training and supervision its officers receive.

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Inspector Robyn MacEachern said advances in the neurobiology of trauma – which examines how a traumatic event can affect victims' behaviour, such as causing a complainant to giggle while recounting a violent event, or their ability to remember an incident chronologically – is a "game-changer" on which every member of the service who investigates sexual assault will be educated.

About 40 sexual assaults are reported to the OPP each week. This fall, the OPP will hire five detective staff sergeants for each of its regional divisions to monitor those investigations. Part of the job will be to make sure officers use all the resources within the organization.

Supt. Smyth said that the OPP have a lot of specialized expertise, such as the behavioural-sciences unit, but front-line officers do not always use those resources because they may think the unit is too busy or their case isn't serious enough.

"That's really what these staff-sergeant positions are for … supporting the investigation all the way through, ensuring all steps are taken and bridging the gap between the field investigators and specialties," he said.

From there, the OPP will implement a final layer of scrutiny in its regional review committees, which will be comprised of advocates, Crown attorneys who specialize in sexual assault law and victim-services representatives. The current plan is for these groups to audit randomly selected sexual assault cases – not just unfounded files – on a quarterly basis with full access to the unredacted investigative files, including the complainant, suspect and witness video interviews. Full access is a key element of the Philadelphia model.

The OPP's North West Region is already piloting a version of this oversight model.

OPP Commissioner Vince Hawkes said that at the centre of all the reforms is a desire to put the victim first.

"How do we train more people? How do we get people to understand the victim-centric approach as opposed to just focusing on the crime. Because there's a big difference there," he said.

"In the end, as the leader of this organization, I think our organization is going to be better and as a result of that, the community is going to be better."

Ontario's provincial police agency is one of the more than 50 Canadian police services to launch audits of sexual assault cases in response to The Globe's series. It is one of about a dozen services – alongside Calgary, Ottawa, North Bay and Brantford – to commit publicly to some form of external case review involving victim advocates.

rdoolittle@globeandmail.com

Robyn Doolittle explains the background of the Globe and Mail's Unfounded investigation into police handling of sexual assault allegations. The series won the international Data Journalism Awards for best investigation after spurring major shifts in public policy and new reviews from police services.
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