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Canada Unfounded: Police detective cleared of misconduct in handling of sexual-assault case

Ava reported a sexual assault to London, Ont. police in 2010. Her allegation was cleared as unfounded.

Galit Rodan/The Globe and Mail

The London police detective who was placed under internal investigation for his handling of a 2010 sexual-assault complaint by a then-18-year-old Western University student has been cleared of professional misconduct, the woman at the centre of that case told The Globe and Mail.

Ava, who is now a 24-year-old law student at a major Canadian university, said she received a call from London's professional standards unit last week, informing her that Paul Gambriel's actions did not meet the standard of misconduct under the Police Services Act.

"But [a high-ranking officer who reviewed the report] wanted to acknowledge that he can see how the line of questioning affected my decision to move forward," Ava said.

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Ava reported a sexual assault to police in 2010 while in her first year of university. The investigation did not go as she hoped. Six years later she requested access to her police file and received her documents, including a video taped police interview. The Globe and Mail

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"I'm not surprised. There's a high threshold that they have to meet. But it's disappointing. Accountability is essential to change."

Mr. Gambriel – who is now a staff sergeant – was placed under internal investigation in November of 2016, after inquiries from The Globe about the way he handled Ava's case. During Ava's interview with the detective, the officer repeatedly seemed to press her to say that what happened was not a rape. He told the teenager that police had located her underwear and there was "discharge" on it, which Ava took as a suggestion she had biologically consented. And he – falsely – claimed on numerous occasions that it was not possible for her to have memory blackouts.

After a month-long investigation, the officer closed Ava's case as unfounded, a term that means no crime occurred or was attempted.

A police report showed the suspect was given a warning.

Staff Sgt. Gambriel could not immediately be reached for comment on Sunday. He earlier declined an interview request because of the internal investigation.

London Police Chief John Pare told The Globe that he could not comment on the professional-standards investigation: "This involves a human-resource matter." But last week, after The Globe revealed Ava's story, the chief issued a broad apology to victims who felt let down by the way they were treated by his service.

As part of a 20-month investigation, The Globe revealed that on average, Canadian police dismiss one out of every five sex-assault allegations as unfounded. In some cities, that number is much higher, including in London, Ont., where 30 per cent of sex-assault allegations were closed as unfounded over the five-year period reviewed by The Globe. In total, 115 Canadian communities drop at least a third of sex-assault allegations as unfounded or baseless. Once a case is unfounded, it is no longer considered a valid allegation and it is not represented in local or national statistics.

Last week, the London Police Service was the first of what has now become more than 30 police departments to announce that it will review sexual-assault unfounded cases. The chief issued the apology later in the week.

"Upon reviewing the media articles and hearing the criticisms of the London Police Service this past weekend, my thoughts turned to the victims of sexual violence … and how their lives have been impacted, not only by the crimes committed against them, but by their experiences with police and the larger criminal-justice system," he said.

"It is with those victims in mind that I would like to apologize to any victims whose experiences left them feeling that they were not supported or that may have eroded their trust in this police service in any way. Because we are human beings, because we are not perfect, there is always room for improvement."

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David Butt, a Toronto lawyer who regularly acts for police officers in disciplinary hearings, said a high bar needs to be met to justify a misconduct charge under the Police Act.

"There are best practices and you kind of fell down on the job – and then there's misconduct," he earlier told The Globe. "Everything can't be punitive. There has to be room for mistakes. Mistakes made that are teachable moments."

Chief Pare has also announced that he plans to look at new training for officers that will deal with consent and how traumatic experiences can impact victim behaviour.

In October, 2010, Ava told London police she had been raped at a keg party by a man she didn't know while heavily intoxicated. During her interview with Det. Gambriel, Ava explained that she had blacked out before the assault. When she came to, she was outside the house in the dirt, naked, and the man was inside of her.

"I remember saying no, like, 'You're hurting me, no,'" Ava said. The man then told her, "I don't want to hurt you, baby," but he continued anyway.

Ava told Det. Gambriel she asked him to stop repeatedly, but he ignored her. The assault only ended after a group of four or five men from the party began taking pictures. That's when the man on top of her ran away, leaving her alone, without any clothes on and sobbing, Ava explained.

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"So, you black out and you don't remember anything," Det. Gambriel said, "but then you suddenly come to and you're able to tell him to stop – that, no, you don't want this to occur?"

The detective told her that memory does not suddenly drop out and suddenly return – in fact it does.

"So I don't know how you can block out one specific aspect of the night, but remember the rest," he said.

In the video, Ava can be seen asking the detective if he doesn't believe her.

"Maybe the sex was consensual and it wasn't until everybody shows up and interrupts and has these cameras out that now it's become a significant issue for you and this other party," the detective replied.

Melanie Randall, a law professor at the University of Western Ontario who has studied sexual-assault law, and who also reviewed Ava's file, told The Globe that charges should have been laid in the case, but that the officer did not do his job.

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"The officer ran interference in so many places, failed to understand the law, failed to understand memory and traumatic events, didn't listen to key things she said, didn't ask her the right questions, arrogantly imposed his own version of what happened, challenged her repeatedly, pretty much suggested that he didn't believe her and reframed the event as consensual," Prof. Randall said.

Ava's case has since been reclassified as a founded allegation.

Have you reported a sexual assault to the police? If you would be willing to share your experience with The Globe and Mail, please email robyndoolittle@globeandmail.com

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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