Brenda Cossman is a professor of law and the director of the Bonham Centre for Sexual Diversity Studies at the University of Toronto
It's a problem hiding in plain sight. The Globe and Mail's Unfounded series documents what sexual assault survivors and their allies have long known: the criminal justice system fails them.
While these failures are many, this series documents the significant number of complaints that police decide classify as unfounded. Baseless. No crime happened. The data is the most comprehensive review of sexual assault unfounded rates ever conducted in Canada. The rates are staggering.
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And before anyone jumps to the conclusion that this somehow confirms the prevalence of false complaints, the Globe series exposes the many problematic reasons that cases are classified as unfounded. The cases show the disturbing extent to which the rape myths, outdated stereotypes, and obsolete understandings of trauma and memory inform these unfounded conclusions.
The report provides the kind of hard hitting empirical evidence needed to convince policy makers and police leadership that there is a problem that needs to be tackled. Survivors of sexual assault and sexual violence experts could have told us this all along, but now the data is there for all to see.
It is a problem whose solution is also hiding in plain sight. Sexual assault experts know what is needed and it's not rocket science: Training police officers. Extensive training of police officers, particularly on trauma informed approaches to investigating sexual assault. As the Unfounded series points out, these trainings, when made available, can be highly effective in transforming officers understanding of how they handle sexual assault complaints, and can reduce the number of unfounded complaints.
Civilian oversight can also reduce the number of unfounded complaints in sexual assault. The so-called 'Philadelphia model,' followed by a number of other police forces, created a system of external review of unfounded sexual assault cases. The Women's Law Project, along with other sexual violence experts, conduct an annual review of unfounded sexual assault cases, along with a random sampling of open cases, and raise concerns about any cases that may have been handled inadequately. It has proven to be effective in reducing unfounded complaints.
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These two solutions could go a long way to reducing the number of unfounded complaints. Why aren't we already doing it? Political will. Training is expensive, and extensive training is more expensive. While police forces across the country struggle with escalating costs and cutbacks to their budgets, it is a matter of prioritizing sexual violence training, and ensuring that there is money to fund it. And civilian oversight? Well, it's fair to say that not all police forces jump up and down with delight at the idea of more oversight. Privacy concerns are cited, but privacy concerns can be worked around. Partnerships can be built. It comes down to political will. Not rocket science.
We have the data and we have the tools to reduce the number of unfounded cases. But, it is reasonable to ask, then what? Because as survivors of sexual violence and their advocates know, unfounded complaints are only the first in a series of obstacles in the criminal justice system. We could imagine a scenario in which the number of unfounded complaints is significantly reduced but the number of prosecutions and convictions do not actually increase. Decreasing the number of unfounded complaints may simply cast more light on the next set of problems. That is not a bad thing in its own right. But, it's important to keep in mind that it will not solve the multiple failures of the criminal justice system.
Sexual violence advocates have for years turned to the criminal justice system. They have valiantly struggled for and achieved important law reform, from exposing the way that rape myths have pervaded sexual assault trials to establishing new legal standards of affirmative consent. Yet, sexual violence remains prevalent as ever.
To really address the pervasiveness of sexual violence, we need to look harder at the problem, and the role of the criminal justice system in redressing it. By the time a sexual assault has occurred, we have already failed. Really addressing sexual violence means prevention. Really addressing sexual violence means education on the meaning of consent. And that's where it starts to become complicated: Sure it's serious training for all the actors in the criminal justice system: police officers, prosecutors, and judges. But it also means transformational sex education. It means changing society's understanding of the meaning of consent, sex and sexuality.
Unfounded complaints may just be the tip of the iceberg. But, thanks to the remarkable journalism of The Globe, there is nowhere for that tip to hide. Unfounded complaints are now in plain sight. So are the ways to tackle them.