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editorial

Canadian police forces registered a 13-per-cent jump in sexual-assault complaints in 2017, while the rate of complaints categorized as “unfounded” – wherein investigators don’t believe a crime has been committed – dropped to 14 per cent, down from 19 per cent four years ago.

More sexual-assault victims, the vast majority of whom are women, are coming forward, and more are being believed by the police. The story, however, isn’t so much the numbers themselves as the fact they were reported at all.

This week marked the first time in nearly 25 years that Statistics Canada included an “unfounded” category in its annual crime numbers.

This is in no small part due to Globe and Mail reporter Robyn Doolittle and her newsroom colleagues, who conducted a 20-month investigation that revealed that many police departments were dismissing a disproportionate percentage of sexual-assault complaints as unfounded, largely because of outdated attitudes that led to investigative missteps.

The main source of information in The Globe investigation was data provided by police departments. The decrease in unfounded sexual-assault cases in 2017, and the rise in founded ones, are reminders that accurate and complete data are necessary for making informed and effective policy.

Some methodological gaps remain in Canadian crime statistics, which are heavily dependent on police reporting – the fact Statscan opted to stop reporting unfounded complaints in 1994 was entirely due to administrative lacunae on the part of local police forces – but the latest release represents progress.

Just as encouraging, police in Canada are waking up to their shortcomings. Multiple departments have implemented specialized training for officers who handle sexual-assault cases, and have also adopted oversight measures – including the Philadelphia Model, which gives advocates a window into case files so they can be examined for bias.

On the other hand, sexual assault is still more likely to result in an "unfounded” finding than most other violent criminal offences. Police departments are changing their cultures, but there is a long way to go before they get it right. The data will help tell us how they are doing.

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