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Unfounded: Over 10,000 sexual-assault cases to be reviewed

Ava reported a sexual assault to London, Ont. police in 2010. Her allegation was cleared as unfounded.

Galit Rodan/The Globe and Mail

At last count, 32 police forces serving more than 1,000 communities have launched investigations into more than 10,000 recent sexual-assault complaints in light of a Globe investigation that exposed serious flaws in law-enforcement practices across the country.

Those figures are certain to climb now that the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police has endorsed reform efforts, encouraging "all police services to review practices around sexual-assault investigations" in a statement issued on Friday.

In all, it's a response to criticism rarely, if ever, seen on the part of the country's police.

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"This is absolutely unprecedented," said Ryerson University criminology professor Alok Mukherjee, who dealt with his share of intransigence as chair of the Toronto Police Services Board for a decade. "When you think about the issue of missing and murdered indigenous women, for example, there was a huge unwillingness to undertake a similar review for a long time … There has not been a similar massive response from police agencies to any other controversy."

These police departments – so often portrayed as resistant to change and slow to recognize bias within – proved this week that, in the face of overwhelming evidence, they have ample institutional flexibility and willingness to right wrongs, past and future.

Or did they?

For some, only an unbiased external review can be trusted to resolve the serious problem of investigators rejecting sexual-assault complaints.

The Globe investigation found that, on average, one out of every five reports of sexual assault is dismissed as unfounded. The designation means investigators don't think a crime occurred.

That overall rate is far above what scholars say it should be. Research from around the world pegs the actual rate of false allegations made to police at somewhere between 2 per cent and 8 per cent.

The single national figure doesn't paint the whole picture. The data show jarring variations between jurisdictions. For instance, sexual-assault complaints are categorized as unfounded 16 per cent of the time in Fredericton and 51 per cent of the time in Saint John – both in New Brunswick, both around the same size.

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Perhaps as alarming is that it took 250 individual freedom-of-information requests to compile this information. Statistics Canada stopped compiling the "unfounded" category in the early 2000s when it found police forces weren't applying the term consistently.

The reaction came with remarkable speed. First was Ontario's London Police Service, which came under particular scrutiny in the story. Chief John Pare promised to audit more than 690 unfounded sexual-assault complaints dating back to 2010 and extended a formal apology "to any victims whose experiences left them feeling that they were not supported or that may have eroded their trust in this police service in any way."

By Sunday, federal politicians were weighing in as well, with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pledging to take action.

"Sexual violence, sexual assault, is still far too prevalent, not just on campuses but in workplaces and in communities across the country," Mr. Trudeau said at a question-and-answer session with university students.

From there, the push to review complaints snowballed into a national effort leaving few regions untouched.

The crucial nudge came on Tuesday when Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale, the federal minister responsible for the RCMP, called on all police agencies and prosecutors "to re-examine all of their approaches, all of their procedures, all of the ways that cases are managed, that investigations are conducted to make sure that we fix this problem and that our criminal-justice system is delivering justice to those who in these circumstances have been so brutally victimized."

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Soon after, dozens of law-enforcement agencies fell in line, including two behemoths employing 35 per cent of the country's uniformed officers: the RCMP and Ontario Provincial Police (OPP).

While impressive, the reaction was uneven. Many departments seemed indifferent to the revelations and no single governing body can direct them to act. That's the vacuum the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police (CACP) sought to fill on Friday. The group's current president, Gatineau Police Chief Mario Harel, issued a statement advising forces to follow the RCMP and OPP's lead – with a few wrinkles. He directed CACP committees to draft training standards for sex-assault investigators and improve the way statistics are recorded and reported to Statistics Canada.

Some high-ranking officers are not convinced that an internal review will solve the problem.

"If we have the same detectives looking at the same cases, then the results are likely going to be the same," Ontario's North Bay Police Chief Shawn Devine said.

North Bay is considering creating an oversight committee that would include representatives from the city's sexual-assault centre. The model is based on a program that's been running in Philadelphia for the past 17 years, in which once a year, local advocacy groups and representatives from the Women's Law Project are invited to review sexual-assault case files alongside senior officers. In the nearly two decades that the review has been operating, the number of rape allegations classified as unfounded has dropped from 18 per cent to 4 per cent.

"Whomever we partner with, they are going to bring their own viewpoint," Chief Devine said. "Whether it's a feminist viewpoint or the advocacy perspective … all together, the end result is we're going to have a better product. I think this is a win-win."

A week after The Globe first told the story of Ava – the University of Western Ontario student who in 2010 reported a rape to the London Police Service, only to have the case dismissed as unfounded a month later – the now 24-year-old law student says she was surprised, but pleased, to see so many police services immediately announcing plans to re-examine sexual-assault files. London's Chief Pare was the first to commit to a review. He has also issued an apology to sex-assault victims who had a negative experience dealing with his department.

"It's pretty remarkable and I think it shows people are taking it seriously. That's what I wanted. It's the right first step. I do hope there are also changes to how officers are trained. It's important to tackle the problem at that end, too," said Ava, who told her story on the condition she is only identified by her first name.

Still, holdouts remain.

A Peel police spokesperson said they expect to release a statement on unfounded cases early next week. The region includes Mississauga and has a 25-per-cent unfounded rate, compared with neighbouring Toronto's 7-per-cent rate. Mississauga Mayor Bonnie Crombie says she is hopeful the local service will embark on a review.

"As soon as I read about this issue, I wrote to Peel Police Services Board chair Amrik Singh Ahluwalia requesting that the Police Board undertake a comprehensive review of all non-investigated sexual assault claims in Peel," she said in a statement.

"My heart breaks for those victims who feel their voices have not been heard and that justice has been denied to them. We need to take urgent action and do everything we can to stand up for sexual-assault victims and ensure that front-line officers have the necessary training to keep people and neighbourhoods safe.

"This is especially important in such a large and diverse city like Mississauga."

Video: The story behind how The Globe's Unfounded series was reported
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About the Authors
National reporter

Patrick previously worked in the Globe's Winnipeg bureau, covering the Prairies and Nunavut, and at Toronto City Hall. He is a National Magazine Award recipient and author of the book Mountie In Mukluks. More

Investigative Reporter

Robyn Doolittle joined The Globe and Mail’s investigative team in April 2014 after spending nearly a decade reporting for the Toronto Star as a general assignment, crime and finally city hall reporter. Her probe of Mayor Rob Ford’s troubled personal life garnered worldwide attention and ultimately won the 2014 Michener Award for public service journalism. More

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