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The Globe and Mail

For Canada’s police, the status quo is not an option

Police reform doesn't come easy, especially when the issue is inequality. Across Canada, forces are regularly accused of reflecting and enforcing societal prejudice – and regularly resist suggestions on addressing this through structural change.

Ontario's Special Investigations Unit, for example, was years in the making; the result of dogged anti-racist advocacy by activists such as Dudley Laws. In British Columbia, a policy on working with vulnerable witnesses only became realized after the RCMP ignored murderer Robert Pickton for years.

It's time, once again, to push for accountability from Canada's police. Last week, The Globe and Mail launched "Unfounded," a continuing series on how police forces across the country process complaints of sexual assault. Specifically, reporter Robyn Doolittle dug into cases marked "unfounded" – sexual assault complaints that police officers considered to be unreliable, or completely untrue.

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

Interactive: Will the police believe you? Compare unfounded sex assault rates across Canada

Read more: How sexual assault survivors look beyond police, courts for justice

The results aren't good. Across the country, 19 per cent of all sexual assault allegations are unfounded. That's more than 5,000 cases every year and far more than with other types of crime. Only 11 per cent of assault allegations, for example, are similarly dismissed by police.

Since accountability is the topic here, it's worth noting that uncovering this information wasn't easy. This data is not public, and The Globe's findings required freedom of information requests sent to each of Canada's more than 1,100 police jurisdictions. It should be pointed out here that 11 per cent of them chose not to respond.

The issue of an overly high rate of unfounded sexual assault complaints crops up around the world. It's a problem in Britain and it's also a problem in New Zealand. And, as Ms. Doolittle finds, it used to be a problem in Philadelphia. It's not anymore.

In the late 1990s, that city underwent a review of five years' worth of unfounded and non-criminal sexual assault allegations. That research confirmed that at least 2,000 cases had been pre-emptively closed.

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The result was serious reform. Now, in what's known as the Philadelphia Model, women's law organizations sit alongside police to review sexual assault files once a year. The unfounded rate for sexual assault complaints in Philadelphia has since plummeted.

Unsurprisingly, jurisdictions outside Philadelphia are being pressured to adopt its model. Sadly, and perhaps also unsurprisingly, some police forces in Canada have been resistant. University of Ottawa law professor Blair Crew has been studying the phenomenon of unfounding for years – a 2008 paper that he published on the topic helped lead the way for The Globe's series. He says in an interview that police reluctance to work with feminist legal groups mirrors a sentiment common to employees of any company. "I think everyone resents the notion of other people looking over their shoulder in terms of work performance," Mr. Crew says, who also works at the school's legal-aid clinic. "It seems like a comment on their professionalism." Perhaps we should all learn to be less defensive in the face of constructive criticism – in the 17 years since the Philadelphia force began working with feminist groups, it's voiced its appreciation for more eyes and minds helping to carry out an important and demanding job.

Besides, co-operation is a preferable tactic to what Mr. Crew sees as the other option, which is legal action. In his 2008 paper, he speculated on whether a hypothetical class-action suit brought against police by sexual assault complainants would be successful. He still believes that women in Ontario, for example, could make a case that a disproportionate rate of unfounded sexual assault cases constitutes unequal treatment under the province's human-rights code.

Privacy, or security, are often presented as justifications for keeping citizens ill-informed about the daily machinations of policing. But, while those are important considerations, they must be balanced with our societal right – and responsibility – to oversee those who enforce our laws. We can't evaluate how well police are protecting all of us without access to their data, and after that, the ability to comment on their practices.

Accusing sexual assault victims of lying is a problem that needs to be fixed. There seem to be two solutions on the table, one co-operative and one combative. One way or the other, something has to change.

The findings of a 20-month long investigation expose deep flaws in the way Canadian police forces handle sexual assault allegations. The Globe's Robyn Doolittle explains.
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