Ontario's Brantford Police Service has become the first Canadian police force to complete a preliminary review of sex-assault cases with the input of front-line advocates.
In response to a Globe and Mail investigation that revealed one of out every five sex-assault allegations is being dismissed as "unfounded" – a term that means the investigating officer does not believe a crime occurred – 54 Canadian police services have publicly committed to auditing unfounded cases. But it appears almost all of those reviews are being handled internally. To date, only eight forces have said they are open to including outside advocates in the review process, despite mounting public pressure from politicians and violence-against-women agencies to involve external eyes.
Some police officials have raised concerns that allowing staff of rape-crisis centres access to investigative files could jeopardize victims' privacy. Advocates have countered that they are already bound by strict confidentiality agreements. In Brantford, the review team was asked to enter into a "memorandum of understanding" with the department. It finished the first phase of the audit – an analysis of 94 cases from 2014 and 2015 – a little more than a week ago. The Brantford program, which was in the works several months before the launch of The Globe's Unfounded series, is loosely modelled after one that has been running in Philadelphia for the past 17 years, in which once a year, outside advocates are able to look through sex-assault case files for signs of bias and investigative missteps.
The Brantford audit differed in that the review committee was not given access to all available records, such as the complainant's video statement. Advocates were only able to work from officer reports, with the names and addresses of the individuals involved redacted.
Brantford Police Chief Geoff Nelson said the idea for the review came about as part of a provincial grant offered last fall that was designed to improve police response to sexual violence. The force only had a few weeks to put together a proposal and the resulting model is the one the service felt comfortable proceeding with given the short-time constraints, he said.
"I would not be surprised if our conversations in the future expand to video and audio being made available. … This is relatively new to us," he said.
"So far, it's moving along quite smoothly. It's been positive. Already [the committee] can see some themes [which can be] built into some type of training module."
The Globe's investigation found that between 2010 and 2014, Brantford police officers closed 30 per cent of sex-assault cases as unfounded. The Globe found that police in 115 communities were dropping at least a third of sex-assault cases as unfounded.
The Brantford Police Service was one of two Ontario forces to receive a provincial grant last December to conduct reviews of sex-assault cases. The Ontario Provincial Police's Northwest Region is conducting a similar audit, which is continuing. In response to The Globe's reporting, six other services – North Bay, Cobourg, Hamilton, the Canadian Forces Military Police Group and most recently Barrie and Kingston – have announced they are hoping to include outside advocates in their unfounded audits.
On Friday, Inspector Paul McGarry with the Barrie Police Service in Ontario, told The Globe his department will also be proceeding with a Philadelphia-style review and that the front-line advocate involved will be given full access.
"What we're going to do with the advocate is have them swear an oath of secrecy that the items that they're viewing are strictly for this purpose," he said.
Insp. McGarry said that his service wanted the front-line worker to see first-hand source material, such as the complainant's video interview and witnesses statements.
Sunny Marriner, the executive director of the Ottawa Rape Crisis Centre and the person who has been leading the campaign to bring the Philadelphia model to Canada, said this is the best practice; otherwise important details, such as the manner in which an interview was conducted, may be lost if advocates are only reading from an officer's final report.
Examining how an officer handles that interview with the victim is one of the key components of the Philadelphia audit and something that the team in Brantford also tried to study despite the limited access.
That team – which was comprised of representatives from the local sex-assault centre; the sex-assault and domestic-violence program co-ordinator from the Brant Community Healthcare System; an official with Victim Services Brant; and a researcher from Wilfrid Laurier University – began its audit in mid-February and met once a week for six weeks.
It borrowed much of the criteria from the Philadelphia committee: Were all relevant witnesses interviewed? Was forensic testing completed? Were victim interviews appropriately conducted? Were cases coded correctly? If a complainant recanted, was it a true false report, or did they do so because of the way they were treated by an officer? The team also checked whether police followed up with complainants during the investigative process.
"There were training opportunities in all areas. I think we also saw evidence of excellent police work happening and we can use that in training opportunities going forward as well," said Joanna Brant, executive director of the Sexual Assault Centre of Brant.
The review team declined to provide any specifics about the problems they found.
"That's not for public discussion," she said. "This is not about embarrassing anyone. … We want to make sure that the police have an opportunity to respond to those findings."
Penny McVicar, executive director of the city's victim services, called it the "circle of trust." Ms. McVicar said one of the great byproducts of the audit was developing a better appreciation for the challenges officers face.
"It's not as cut and dry as you think when you might start. There are so many nuances," she said.
The next phase will have the Brantford team going through 2016 cases, and from there, it will develop training modules for the service based on its findings.
Sergeant Kevin Reeder, a member of Brantford's sex-assault unit who sat in on the review, said when he first heard about the audit, he felt defensive and worried that the outsiders were looking for a "gotcha."
"You hear that it's going to be an advocate review. Initially it's like, 'Oh no.' I didn't understand what the intent was behind it. I thought it was to pick apart police investigations," the sergeant said. "Now I get it. … I can see it's about education and the end goal is training for us. I think it's a good thing."