Content Warning: This article deals with the topic of sexual assault.
When The Globe and Mail’s Robyn Doolittle investigated police forces’ handling of sexual assault investigations across Canada in 2017, over a quarter of those in Waterloo Region were written off as unfounded.
The term “unfounded” is a police classification used when an investigation determines that no crime had occurred or been attempted.
Between 2010 and 2014 the unfounded rate in Waterloo Region sat at 27 per cent – eight per cent higher than the national average at the time. In the three years since The Globe’s series came out, there’s been a substantial shift in the way Waterloo Regional Police Services handles sexual assault investigations. By 2019, the number had dropped to eight per cent.
This rate had long been a problem, according to Sara Casselman, executive director of the Sexual Assault Support Centre of Waterloo Region (SASC), but when Doolittle’s series showed the number of unfounded cases in the country to be nearly one in five, it brought more attention to the topic.
Part of the problem with the numbers was that rate of unfounded cases was substantially higher than the rate of false sexual assault allegations, Casselman said.
“That was really problematic because what we know from vast amount of research and working in this field, is that it’s very rare that someone would lie about a sexual assault,” she said. “Usually you’re looking at a two-to-four per cent false reporting rate, so to have 19 per cent classified as unfounded indicated a significant problem. And in Waterloo Region, our average was significantly higher than that.”
Another issue arose from unfounded being a loaded term, Casselman said.
“If there’s insufficient evidence to proceed, then there’s insufficient evidence to proceed. That’s not unfounded,” she said.
There was a marked increase in public response to the issue following the publication of Doolittle’s piece, Casselman said, though she added that the problem had long been identified by those working in fields connected to the topic of sexual assault and violence against women.
For Waterloo Region, this meant the establishment of a task force initiated by WRPS to look at unfounded cases. Casselman co-chaired both subcommittees of the task force, one of which audited previous unfounded cases.
One of the recommendations that arose from these subcommittees was the use of advocate case review – formerly referred to as the “Philadelphia Model”. In this system, community advocates such as Casselman conduct quarterly reviews of cases closed without charges to look at how they are being investigated. The point of these reviews was to see where missteps were being made in the handling of sexual assault investigations, whether on the individual level or on a broader issue such as understanding of consent laws.
Casselman said looking at gender bias and misunderstanding of trauma were some of the issues touched upon when doing the audit of 78 past cases. An example she gave was a survivor coming forward with a sexual assault, but telling the story in a disjointed or illogical manner being seen as a liar instead of suffering from a traumatic experience.
“When we do reviews locally, we look for those kinds of things,” Casselman said. “We look for evidence of other forms of bias. Did it reference she was wearing a very short skirt and why would it reference that in the way it referenced it in the police report. We look for did they make the assumption she was lying and move on, or did they do a really thorough investigation. Did they treat her very respectfully.”
The change in reporting and the decrease in unfounded cases is something WRPS Chief Bryan Larkin acknowledged as a positive change in the region. Larkin gave credit to the work done by Casselman and others in the field for helping to create changes in how police look at the issue.
“You’ll note that our unfounded rate, when it’s released next week is down. We’re making progress, we’re making room for improvement. We’ve enhanced our training,” he said at a media briefing in November. “But largely thanks to the advocacy of our external partners, we’re seeing an increase in reporting.”
While the unfounded rate has steadily declined, something Casselman called a positive, she also noted that the issue of unfounded cases was a “red herring” when it came to the broader systemic response to sexual assault. Casselman said looking at charge rates for sexual assaults would be an important next step, since many investigations fail to see charges laid.
“Of those that report – and only five per cent report – for every 33 that are reported, 12 charges are laid,” she said. “Six are prosecuted, they go to court and three have convictions. The overall system for survivors coming forward is really challenging and most often there is not a guilty verdict. There are much bigger issues that need to be addressed in our system.”
If you have been sexually assaulted, support is available through the Sexual Assault Support Centre of Waterloo Region. Their 24-hour support line can be reached at 519-741-8633.