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Opinion Justice for sexual-assault victims starts with police accountability

Holly Johnson is associate professor in the department of criminology at the University of Ottawa.

Sexual-assault survivors have a troubled relationship with the police and courts in Canada. Trust has deteriorated to the point where just 5 per cent report to the police. This is not surprising given the poor treatment many receive at the hands of the police and truly abysmal treatment in court.

This is why it is welcome news that after more than two decades, Statistics Canada released unfounded sexual-assault rates.

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The data come after a 20-month Globe and Mail investigation published last year which showed that, depending on jurisdiction, between 2 per cent and 51 per cent of sexual-assault allegations are dismissed by police as “unfounded” and do not appear in crime statistics. This sends a powerful message to women that, should they report, there is a very real chance the police will not believe them.

The Globe series has been a game-changer. It has trained a spotlight on this urgent policy issue in a way advocates and researchers, armed with similar data, have not been able to do.

All this attention puts pressure on police to review how they handle sexual-assault cases. Some are partnering with local sexual-assault support centres in a transparent effort to understand and remedy problems while others have committed to closed-door case reviews and others to no review at all. According to The Globe, internal reviews in some police departments with above-average unfounded rates concluded there were no problems with investigation or case classification. Nothing to see here, move along.

Statistics Canada stopped publishing unfounded rates for individual jurisdictions in 1994 because of concerns police were coding inconsistently. Police argue unfounded rates are artificially high because Statistics Canada’s Uniform Crime Reporting Survey is missing certain coding options.

Pressured to revise their data-collection strategy, Statistics Canada investigated and found police often relegate sexual assaults to unfounded when they are reported by someone other than the survivor. Such a scenario occurs when survivors do not want involvement with the police, but want to ensure the police receive a report about it. Research shows that protecting other women is a strong motivator for coming forward. It is also important for establishing patterns and possible serial offenders. Other cases are unfounded when survivors did not want to proceed to court, or when police felt evidence would not stand up in court, even when there was evidence of an assault.

The new and improved coding instructs police to “err on the side of belief” and to adopt a victim-focused approach that is free of judgement and bias. A report is to be considered “founded” if police have reasonable and probable grounds to believe a crime has occurred, or there is no credible evidence to confirm a crime did not occur. Cases where women do not co-operate with police, want charges dropped, or are intoxicated or unconscious are not unfounded.

Police are instructed to follow the recommendations from the International Association of Chiefs of Police, which states that all reports should be taken as valid unless evidence proves otherwise.

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This directive is a clear recognition that police may invalidate legitimate sexual-assault complaints unless explicitly instructed not to.

Today, Statistics Canada released unfounded rates for 2017. The rate for sexual assaults was 14 per cent, a slight drop from 19 per cent the previous year (based on data collected in The Globe’s investigation). However, it is early days and police departments are just now implementing the new data-collection regime. When inconsistencies are ironed out, we will see how police line up with research showing between 2 per cent and 8 per cent of sexual-assault complaints are actually false.

But simply reducing the unfounded rate does not ensure justice for survivors of sexual assault. Justice will come when investigations are materially improved so that survivors know they will be treated with dignity and respect, cases are investigated thoroughly, charges are laid and suspects prosecuted. Recoding is only the first step toward greater transparency. Unless police invite community oversight from agencies with expertise in sexual victimization, biased investigations and case dismissal may continue, just in another form.

Statistics Canada is to be commended for acting quickly. Yet there is plenty of evidence of troubling police behaviour and a new coding structure may distract us from the real problems. When women are blamed and their cases dropped, the outcomes for survivors are the same, no matter how crimes are recorded.

Many police jurisdictions have launched training for trauma-informed investigation and other victim-centred practices. Some have begun to facilitate third-party reporting through community-based victim services agencies. Greater police accountability and transparency may be possible, but only if the spotlight remains firmly on.

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