Content warning: This article discusses sexual assault investigations.
The publication of Robyn Doolittle’s “Unfounded” findings in 2017 resulted in a complete overhaul of how sexual assaults are investigated and classified on a national level. After the publication, police services across the country pledged that they would be reviewing and revising the way sexual assault allegations are classified and handled. Close to home, Peterborough Police Service announced that they would not only be providing additional training, implementing a Violence Against Women Advocacy Review, and developing a website and series of videos informing civilians of the sexual assault allegation reporting process, but they were also selected as one of seven test sites for the Violence Against Women Advocate Case Review project, which provides external experts the opportunity to review case files.
The question remains: have the Peterborough Police followed through on their pledges in the four years since the initial “Unfounded” article was published? Arthur got in contact with Peterborough Police Service’s Communications Coordinator Sandra Dueck to find out.
As explored in the previous article, findings from Doolittle’s investigation revealed that the Peterborough Police Service had one of the highest 5-year unfounded sexual assault rates in the country at 30% - well above the national average of 19.39%. Once the investigation had been completed, the Peterborough Police Service made several comments and vows concerning how sexual assault allegations would be classified and handled going forward.
One of the main ventures that came out of the “Unfounded” article was the Violence Against Women Advocacy Review - a collaborative pilot project between the Peterborough Police Service, the Kawartha Sexual Assault Centre, YWCA [Young Women’s Christian Association] Peterborough Haliburton, and the Women’s Health Care Centre at Peterborough Regional Health Centre, which sought to review the classification process of sexual assault allegations. As Dueck explained, “as a result of the review [which was completed in 2019] with the partners listed above, a number of cases were reclassified and the new unfounded percentage for 2010 to 2014 was to be determined to be 11.8% and for 2015 to 2016 - 4.5%.” Despite the adjustments in case classifications, Dueck stated that “it was determined that no investigations needed to be reopened.”
Yet it was not only unfounded rates that changed as a result of Doolittle’s findings - there have since been revisions made to the classification of founded and unfounded allegations. Doolittle’s article highlighted discrepancies in unfounded cases throughout different police jurisdictions across the country and argued that these inaccurate unfounded rates go beyond statistics, and are reflective of “deeper flaws in the investigative process.” While these discrepancies were highlighted in Doolittle’s work, Statistics Canada has been aware of these inconsistencies for some time. In “Unfounded”, Doolittle explains that “because unfounded statistics are kept secret - except through individual and often costly freedom-of-information requests - there is no imperative for police to analyze or account for them.” Doolittle continues,
It wasn’t always this way. Until 2003, Statistics Canada released unfounded numbers. The last year for which numbers are available is 2002, when the national unfounded rate for sexual offences was 16 per cent. The agency collects data through the Uniform Crime Reporting Survey (UCRS), a national set of standards that every police service is supposed to follow. The definition of unfounded, along with all other clearance codes, is laid out explicitly in the UCRS protocols. But after Statistics Canada raised concerns that police services weren’t using the category consistently - for instance, misclassifying as unfounded cases that simply did not have enough evidence to lay a charge; or, more seriously, not recording unfounded cases at all - Statistics Canada decided to stop collecting the data altogether, rather than force police to follow the rules.
However, since the publishing of Doolittle’s article, Statistics Canada has removed all annual unfounded rates prior to 2017. A footnote in the article, “Incident-based crime statistics, by detailed violations, Canada, provinces, territories and Census Metropolitan Areas” by Statistics Canada reads
Data for unfounded incidents are available for 2017 and subsequent years in order to resume collection that had been halted in 2006 due to inconsistent reporting. To improve comparability, the definition of founded and unfounded criminal incidents was revised in 2017 and any prescribed changes relating to the classification of incidents will be phased in over time starting with the reporting of 2019 data. As such, it is understood that inconsistencies in reporting may still exist in 2017 and 2018. Data may therefore be incomparable across police services.
The importance of properly defining and classifying sexual assault allegations is highlighted in Doolittle’s article by Holly Johnson, an Ottawa criminologist, who argues that the term “unfounded” is often misinterpreted as a false claim; “What does unfounded mean to you? What does unfounded mean to anybody? It means ‘you’re lying’”. It was this ambiguity that police services were called to respond to. The Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics's article entitled “Revising the Classification of Founded and Unfounded Criminal Incidents in the Uniform Crime Reporting Survey” provides a timeline of events detailing the evolution of unfounded criminal incidents. Over the course of 11 months since Doolittle’s article was published, the term “unfounded” and practices surrounding the term changed dramatically. The timeline is pictured below:
The process of arriving at the recommended changes to the UCR Survey is also detailed;
These efforts culminated in a revised definition for ‘founded’ and reworking of classification options for sexual assault investigations. Previously, according to the UCR Survey, an incident was deemed founded if a police investigation found that a “violation” had occurred even when the perpetrator was unknown. However, the updated definition of ‘founded’ reflects a “victim-centred approach” which emphasizes that all alleged victims are to be believed unless there is evidence that their claim is shown to be false.
The new definition of founded, updated in January 2018 reads “An incident is founded if, after police investigation, it has been determined that the reported offence did occur or was attempted (even if the charged/suspect chargeable (CSC) is unknown) or there is no credible evidence to confirm that the reported incident did not take place. This includes third party reports that fit these criteria.”
Furthermore, the UCR Survey and police services have decided to discontinue the practice of classifying incidents as ‘unsubstantiated’. According to The Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics, this decision was made as a result of classification inconsistencies among police services. Due to the previous definitions of ‘founded’ and ‘unfounded’, both of which were quite rigid, police services experienced difficulties classifying incidents when it could not be determined if a crime had been committed. This often resulted in the classification of these investigations as ‘unsubstantiated’. However, according to The Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics, the internal category of ‘unsubstantiated’ was not reported to them, and therefore its prevalence is unknown. It was recommended by POLIS that this classification be retired for two reasons; “first, there was little international evidence to support the collection and reporting of ‘unsubstantiated’ incidents (or equivalent). Second, the emergence of the victim-centred approach to recording incidents means that it is to be believed that the crime occurred unless there is concrete evidence that proves the incident did not take place.”
Finally, part of the overhaul also included the creation of new detailed classification designations for founded incidents that are not cleared. The Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics explains;
Historically, the UCR Survey only allowed police to classify a founded incident that was not cleared (or solved) as just that–not cleared. As a result of consultations led by CCJS in 2017 with POLIS and other police services, it was determined that the lack of specificity in reasons for not clearing an incident may have contributed to varying rates of unfounded. It became evident that more options were needed in order for police to report more accurately and to produce a better statistical understanding of the reason why founded incidents may not be cleared.
These new classification options, which are explained in depth here are:
The Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics noted that “it is expected that with these revisions, the use of ‘unfounded’ as a classification will decline as it will be clearer to police how to classify incidents based on the information from investigations.”
They were correct. Peterborough Police’s Communications Coordinator Sandra Dueck explained that as a result of the revision of classifications for founded and unfounded criminal incidents, Peterborough Police Service’s unfounded rates have decreased significantly and shared the most recent statistics;
As mentioned in the previous article, the “Unfounded” survey gave police services an opportunity to explain if and how they would be changing policies, training, and procedures surrounding sexual assault investigations going forward. Peterborough Police Service selected that they would be implementing trauma-informed training. They further elaborated by explaining that “all supervisors have been updated on the results of our internal audit and of the standards required to ensure consistency when classifying sexual assaults as unfounded. The Major Crime Sergeant will be reviewing on a daily basis any incidents that are classified as unfounded to ensure they have been properly classified.”
Doolittle’s findings showed that Peterborough Police Service’s policy of having primarily police officers handle sexual assault allegations was outdated. When asked on the survey who was conducting the reviews of unfounded cases, the Peterborough Police Service selected only current sworn police officers from their service - which is discouraged by the Philadelphia Model, which encourages the inclusion of experts and advocates trained in violence against women and victim services during sexual assault allegation investigations. Furthermore, in 2017 The Globe and Mail listed Peterborough and Ottawa’s sex-crimes units as handling most (approximately 90%), but not all sexual-assault investigations. When asked why this is, and if the officers outside of the sex-crimes units are trained to handle a topic as sensitive as a sexual assault, Dueck explained;
The Peterborough Police Service Sex Crimes Unit consists of 4 members and a Sergeant and we also have 3 officers in Major Crime trained, who can back up if required. This Unit has been around for approximately 25 years. Within the Peterborough Police Service, officers rotate through various roles, as a result we have several fully trained officers on the front line in uniform with the same skills as those in the Sex Crimes Unit. Training happens through approved Ontario Police College courses and in partnership with local community partners.
Dueck further elaborated on the progress the Peterborough Police Service has made since the publishing of Unfounded. She explained “one of the most notable partnerships that officially came out of this is the Community Safety and Policing Grant that gave [Peterborough Police Service] the ability to create a ‘Special Victims Unit’”. Announced by Peterborough-Kawartha MPP Dave Smith on December 18, 2019, the Ministry of the Solicitor General describes the Community Safety and Policing Grant as “a grant program that operates on a three-year cycle and provides police services with the tools and resources they need to combat crime and keep our communities safe. The program focuses on addressing both local and provincial community safety priorities.”
The Peterborough Community Police Services board has received both local and provincial grant funding for the Special Victims Unit, in the amounts of $1,158,750 and $832,692 respectively for the period of 2019-2022. On August 11, 2020 it was announced that the Special Victims Unit was receiving an additional $225,000 to “add 1.5 more officers to the unit in January [of 2021].”
Both local and provincial funding describe the Special Victims Unit as focused on investigating “human trafficking, child exploitation, elder abuse, domestic violence as well as sexual violence and harassment” with the local description adding that “the unit’s goal will be to improve case management and ensure a better coordination of support services to victims. The team will also engage in enhanced awareness and prevention strategies with the community.” Dueck also noted that the grant also intended on having “these officers continue to engage in trauma informed interviewing techniques and policing.” Although the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted some of these plans, Dueck reiterates that “the goal remains to continue with this training moving forward.”
In addition to the Special Victims Unit, another point of pride for the Peterborough Police Service is the fact that they are one of six services with an in-house Victim Services Unit. This unit is the responsibility of two civilian co-ordinators. The Peterborough Police Service explains that these co-ordinators “perform their duties separately, but collaboratively with police, solely for the support of the victims of crime and tragic circumstances.” Responsibilities of this unit include reviewing, assessing, and following up with victims to provide emotional support, to explain the process of and legislative rights concerning completing a Victim Impact Statement, assisting victims with applying for criminal injuries compensation, court support, general advice, community presentations, among others. Dueck elaborates that these coordinators work “closely with our victims to ensure supports are available through the police process, and the recovery process that continues long afterwards.”
Another project that Dueck mentions that The Peterborough Police Service completed is “Supporting Police Response to Sexual Violence and Harassment.” A 2-year collaborative project conducted from 2016-2018, Dueck explains that “it allowed [the Peterborough Police Service] to provide multi sectoral training for police and community partners in areas such as neurobiology of trauma, trauma informed interviewing, investigations with vulnerable victims, cultural competence for working with Indigenous populations, gender expression and the LGBTQ2 community and breaking down myths, biases and prejudices in sexual assault reporting.” Also launched in 2018 was the collaborative online resource Survivor Toolkit which provides services, videos, and information for sexual assault survivors and their loved ones, such as information about sexual violence and how to support a survivor, medical, police, victim, court, and counselling services, as well as a resource guide. The website describes itself as “project of the Peterborough Police [that has been] funded through the Ontario government and designed through a multi-sector partnership of community service, health, and criminal justice organizations to build an evidence-based, trauma-informed and empathetic response for victims and survivors of sexual violence and harassment.”
While these updates are certainly great strides, Dueck acknowledges that these projects were a collaborative community effort, stating that the Special Victims Unit positions and other projects “wouldn’t have been able to exist without the support and collaboration” from their community partners. She elaborates;
The Peterborough Police Service is proud of the community partnerships we’ve established and continue to be involved with outreach to ensure a more wholesome response to victims. This includes training, and an overall better understanding of victim needs, and community supports. These relationships include, but are not limited to, [the Kawartha Sexual Assault Centre], [the Peterborough Regional Health Centre], [Young Women’s Christian Association Peterborough Haliburton], [and the] Nogojiwanong Friendship Centre.
One organization which has been heavily involved in these updated training practices is the Kawartha Sexual Assault Centre, who played an integral role in Peterborough Police Service’s trauma informed training - which Dueck describes as “a leading initiative here that is now implemented in a number of other jurisdictions” - demonstrating that trauma informed, victim centred approaches and practices can pave the way for positive change for those who come forward to report a sexual assault.
Arthur reached out to the Kawartha Sexual Assault Centre, the YWCA (Young Women’s Christian Association) Peterborough Haliburton, and the Women’s Health Care Centre at Peterborough Regional Health Centre, all of whom failed to respond at the time of publication.
If you are the victim of a sexual assault, these websites may provide support:
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