Mark Saunders is the Chief of Police of Toronto Police Service.
The Globe and Mail's Unfounded series has brought well-deserved attention to a challenging issue. Sexual-assault investigations have historically been difficult for police services. From the complexities of gathering statements and evidence, to creating a meaningful understanding of the trauma endured by survivors, police services must always strive to do better.
Certainly at the Toronto Police Service, we have made mistakes, learned lessons and made improvements. For more than a decade, the TPS has improved almost every aspect of sexual-assault investigations. As highlighted by The Globe's series, one of these aspects has been the way the service categorizes cases as unfounded.
The TPS has placed a strong emphasis on the need for evidentiary reasons, rather than an investigator's opinion, in order to determine an allegation as unfounded. While many officers have historically relied on their gut instincts to lead them through the investigative process, this is no longer the way good policing works.
The problem with decisions being guided by instinct is that instinct can be influenced by subconscious beliefs that have been affected by long-held societal opinions about sexual assault. Instead, when it comes to sexual-assault investigations, officers must have tangible evidence or an admission from the victim before marking a case as unfounded.
Like any good change in practice, we also implemented checks and balances. Any time an officer believes a case should be marked as unfounded, they must consult with their supervisor to show that one of the two thresholds has been met.
Training has also played an important role in improving our handling of sexual-assault investigations. More than 2,000 of my officers have completed the two-week course for sexual-assault investigators. Whether assigned to a particular division or to the Sex Crimes Unit, the specifically trained officers are the only ones who are permitted to carry out a sexual-assault investigation.
Training for these officers in how to appropriately classify an allegation is only one of the many critically important aspects that are covered. It is at this course that we explore those long-held societal beliefs about sexual assault mentioned earlier.
As an example, we have completely changed the way the service communicates about sexual assault. We have implemented procedural directions as to when a public-safety alert must be issued and we have changed the focus of these alerts by putting the emphasis on the behaviour of the offender rather than indirectly blaming the victim for what happened.
We have also made efforts to encourage victims to come forward to report sexual assaults. By publishing our Guide for Sexual Assault Survivors, we have created a detailed document for those who want to know what will happen when they come forward to police. The guide also highlights another important lesson we have learned over the years: Survivors of sexual assault are best served by a cross-section of services.
Through our work with the Sexual Assault Advisory Committee, we know we cannot do this work alone. We have listened and learned from survivors, educators, health practitioners, lawyers and many community agencies. They have brought us to where we are today and they will help take us into the future. We are grateful for their patience and dedication. As for what comes next, we are always looking to do better. For whatever our successes have been, there will always be room for improvement.