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How police stats fail the victims of sexual assault

Holly Johnson is associate professor in the department of criminology at the University of Ottawa. Elizabeth Sheehy teaches sexual-assault law in the faculty of law at the University of Ottawa.

Where is the tipping point?

Not a day goes by that we don't hear of another man in a position of power having abused that power to sexually harass, assault and silence women. While we may hope the tipping point has been reached through this explosion of public disclosures, Statistic Canada's most recent report on how women's sexual-assault complaints are processed shows just how far we are from an adequate justice-system response.

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Over the past two decades, Statistics Canada reported a significant dip in reported sexual assaults, from the rate of one in 10 to an all-time low of one in 20. Shame, embarrassment and mistrust of the criminal justice system are largely to blame. And rightly so. Complicity and minimization of the harms of sexual violence infect every aspect of our system.

Investigative reporting by The Globe and Mail discovered that even when women do report, on average police dismiss one in five complaints as unfounded. Statistics Canada says police lay charges against a suspect in less than half of the remainder, even though the vast majority had an identifiable suspect. Crown attorneys prosecute half of the cases police bring forward and only half of those result in a conviction. The result is that an offender is held accountable under the law in just one in 10 complaints that police consider legitimate. If we consider that women experience more than 500,000 sexual assaults in a single year, fewer than 1 per cent of perpetrators of this violent crime are convicted.

The way police statistics portray these crimes is equally troubling. They have increasingly charged sexual assaults in the least serious category, from 88 per cent of cases when the three tiers of sexual assault were first enacted in 1983, to 98 per cent today. Yet Statistics Canada previously reported that victims were injured in almost 20 per cent of sexual assaults coded as least serious, which ought to result in charging the assault at a higher level. Janice DuMont at Women's College Research Institute found that the charges laid by police in cases involving women seen at a sexual-assault treatment centre in Ontario corresponded to the expected charge, based on injuries and use of a weapon, in only 40 per cent of cases. Relatedly, our criminal law does not single out acts of penetration, and thus rape, along with sexual assault causing bodily harm and sexual assault using a weapon, is hidden in the statistics, disguised as the least serious type of sexual assault.

How crimes are recorded by police is not simply an arcane matter for bean counters. The crimes of perpetrators are not properly denounced and the dangerousness of these men's behaviour does not enter police and public record. And victimized women are further harmed by having the crime minimized.

Further, statistics are considered to tell social truths. Police data send a message to the public that 98 per cent of sexual assaults reported are of little consequence. They paint a misleading picture of these crimes as minor and as falling in numbers.

Sound data from police on the incidence and forms of sexual violence are essential for informed policy-making and law reform. Transparency and accountability are also crucial at a time when women's faith in the justice system is at rock bottom.

For a country serious about women's equality, continued acceptance of sexual violence as an inevitable part of life for women and girls in Canada is not an option. The recent public exposure of high-profile men has had real consequences for them in terms of loss of jobs and reputations. We can only hope that after 40 years of women speaking out, this may be our tipping point.

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