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Editorials Globe editorial: Outdated police practices are hurting victims of sexual assault

The Globe and Mail's investigation into how Canadian police handle sexual assault complaints has clearly touched a nerve. The Prime Minister, the Public Safety Minister, the head of the RCMP and numerous police chiefs across the country have all had the same reaction: Something is seriously wrong.

A significant number of police departments, including the RCMP and the Ontario Provincial Police, are now reviewing all the sexual assault complaints that their officers labelled as "unfounded" going back as far as 2010. They want to see for themselves how it could be that 5,000 complaints a year are being dismissed as false, and why one police department can have an unfounded rate in the low single digits (Toronto, for instance), while another in the next town over has a rate of 30 per cent or higher (York Region).

These reviews are essential. They may help some sexual assault victims – the vast majority of whom are women – get belated justice, or at least feel like they are being taken seriously.

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Related: Unfounded: How police and politicians have responded to The Globe's investigation so far

Read more: Unfounded: Police dismiss 1 in 5 sexual assault claims as baseless, Globe investigation reveals

Also: Will police believe you? Find your region's unfounded sex assault rate

But the self-reflection prompted by the Unfounded investigation can't stop there. What is needed is for police departments and the court system to answer the big question: How has the handling of sexual assault cases in Canada reached the point where 5,000 or more women claiming to be victims of a serious crime are disbelieved by police officers every year?

The actual rate at which sexual assaults are falsely reported lies somewhere between two and eight per cent, according to numerous studies that have looked specifically at that question. But, if 5,000 cases are being dismissed as unfounded on average every year, then in 2015, when the total number of police-reported sexual assaults was just below 21,500, Canadian police dismissed 19 per cent of complaints as false.

That's at least double what it should have been, and the reality is probably worse. There may well be more than 3,000 women who were sexually assaulted in Canada in 2015 who left the police station somehow feeling as if they made a mistake, or that they had been forsaken by people they should have been able to trust.

This is made all the more troubling by the stark disparities in the unfounded rates recorded by various police departments. How can the rate be two per cent in Winnipeg, but 28 per cent in Ottawa?

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Clearly, some police departments are doing a good job dealing with the complexities of sexual assault cases, in which the victim often knows the attacker, there may be no witnesses, and alcohol is sometimes involved. Their detectives have learned, among other things, that victims can be disoriented and misremember events in the first hours after their trauma, and that it is better to wait a day or two before undertaking a full interview. They have also been taught not to rely on gut instinct – which can be tainted by subconscious attitudes – but on evidence gathered in the most professional and complete manner.

But just as clearly, far too many departments have failed to update their techniques, expertise and attitudes. And that's not fair. Every sexual assault victim in Canada should be able to know that her complaint will be handled competently by properly trained officers. A person from British Columbia, the province with the lowest average unfounded rate (11 per cent), who visits New Brunswick, which has the highest rate (32 per cent), should not feel as if they are travelling to a foreign country.

This is true of all crimes, of course. But remember that sexual assault complainants face exceptionally high hurdles once their complaint moves on to the courts. The he-said, she-said nature of so many cases requires the court to subject the victims to an agonizing examination of their credibility, and to take pains to ensure that any guilty verdict is certain beyond a reasonable doubt.

Victims' chances of seeing a conviction are consequently low: StatsCan says 63 per cent of all criminal charges result in a guilty verdict, but for the crime of sexual assault, the conviction rate is below 25 per cent.

It takes a brave woman to go to police to make a sexual assault complaint, in other words. The odds are so stacked against victims that it is generally accepted that only one in 10 will come forward.

And yet thousands of women do just that every year, hoping that the police will at least give them a fair hearing. And in many cases, that's what they get. But it happens in too inconsistent a fashion in Canada, with the result that far too many victims are being unjustifiably denied even their slim shot at justice.

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The courts can never abandon the rigorous standards of evidence that guarantee a fair trial for the accused. That hurdle will always exist in criminal cases, and must.

But the different unfounded rates across Canada are evidence that there are good ways of handling sexual assault complaints, and bad ways. Some police departments are getting it right, but many are not. Those with with high rates have a duty to make sure their practices are up to date. Anything else is inexcusable.

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If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

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