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Toronto non-profit to deliver sexual-assault alerts through mobile system

Mandi Gray, right, with Devin Clancy at the METRAC press conference, is a a PhD student at York University who would like the system to include alerts from sources other than police.

Glenn Lowson/The Globe and Mail

Torontonians will soon be able to have news about sexual assaults in the city delivered directly to them.

What they do with that information will be the interesting part, say the developers of an online system that will provide quick alerts and updates on the city's sexual assaults.

Wendy Komiotis, director of METRAC, a non-profit organization focused on violence against women, said that in the past, sexual assault was rarely talked about, but now "we're going to be putting it in your face."

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Once or twice a week, the Toronto Police Service releases information on its website about sexual assaults, usually with a description or composite drawing of the suspect. But many members of the public never see those bulletins.

METRAC will launch the Safety Information System this fall. People can subscribe through text, voicemail, social media or a mobile app to be notified about attacks. The system will also let subscribers talk among themselves about how to keep people safe until suspects are caught.

The idea was born out of a string of sexual assaults around Christie Pits park in 2012, when local residents came up with impromptu solutions, including "buddy systems" for walking in public, and leaving porch lights on, Ms. Komiotis said.

Police are collaborating on the system, which is funded by the City of Toronto. The project co-ordinator is Jane Doe, the woman who successfully sued police for negligence after she was sexually assaulted in 1986 by a known offender, "Balcony Rapist" Paul Callow. The publication ban that protects her real name is still in effect and she continues to identify herself as Jane Doe.

"It's a delicious irony that I should find myself here in this place," she said in an interview. She has wanted to do something similar since she was raped, and "we're at a time right now, in 2015, when the technology is available," she said.

One complaint about police sexual-assault alerts was that they warned people, especially women, to restrict their movements to protect themselves, Ms. Doe said. METRAC members say they did not want to inspire similar fear and so they spoke to community groups as they designed the project. They will keep in touch with users to see whether they find the information useful or anxiety-inducing, and make sure it does not make them feel they have to watch where they go or how they dress.

"Those are the kinds of questions that we will be asking: …'Do you feel like we are adding to the control or policing of what you wear, or the message is sort of skewed in a way that certain groups feel vulnerable, that they're targeted?'" Ms. Komiotis said.

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The Christie Pits assaults showed how productively a neighbourhood can react when it is well-informed, she said.

Rather than inciting fear, METRAC's Andrea Gunraj said, the project could encourage bystanders to step in when they see an assault, or spur business owners to post information in their stores.

"It won't be like the responsibility's on you, but that the responsibility is on all of us," Ms. Gunraj said.

The involvement of the public makes the project "particularly interesting" to Toronto Police Services, police spokeswoman Meaghan Gray said.

Mandi Gray, a PhD student at York University, is taking the school to the Ontario Human Rights Commission partly over its decision not to warn students about a man charged with sexually assaulting her early this year. At METRAC's press conference on Tuesday, Ms. Gray said she would like the system to include alerts from sources other than police.

Ms. Komiotis said the group is researching whether other types of alerts are possible.

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