Sexual violence case review similar to Philadelphia among new police projects

Published on February 15, 2017

TORONTO — Ontario is putting $1.8 million toward 15 pilot projects aimed at improving police response to sexual assault, including two case review models similar to a "gold standard" approach first pioneered in Philadelphia.

Advocates say the case reviews in Brantford and the northwest region of the Ontario Provincial Police are a good first step but fall short of the Philadelphia model, which frontline workers have been urging Canadian police to adopt for nearly a decade.

"I anticipate that we might be in a place very soon where we will have a Canadian first in adopting the Philadelphia best practices, but we're not quite there yet," said Sunny Marriner, executive director of the Ottawa Rape Crisis Centre. 

The Philadelphia model enables frontline workers and legal advocates to conduct annual reviews of cases declared unfounded, or cleared because an officer believes no crime occurred, as well as some open cases. Since the model was adopted about 17 years ago, the city's unfounded rates have dropped from 18 per cent to below 10 per cent.

In Brantford, cases from 2014 and 2015 will be reviewed by a panel made up of representatives from a local sex assault centre, victim services, the community health system, Wilfrid Laurier University, police and a legal expert on violence against women.

The project will aim to develop best practices in sexual assault investigations and an enhanced training program.

Marriner said she has been training members of the panel and assisting in early case reviews. So far, the model differs from Philadelphia in that Brantford police have provided synopses of cases rather than the full case files, she said.

She added that the key to the Philadelphia model is that it is annual. The projects and funding in Ontario will span two years and are part of a provincial government plan to end sexual violence and harassment.

The Ontario Provincial Police's northwest region, headquartered in Thunder Bay, said it will appoint a committee of experts to review and oversee complaints, including assessment of cases that did not result in convictions. It didn't say who the experts were.

North Bay police said it applied for funding from the Ontario government for an advocate case review model but was turned down.

Carol Tracy, executive director of the Women's Law Project in Philadelphia, has been part of the panel that reviews cases since 2001. She said audits have revealed, for example, officers who were interrogating victims rather than interviewing them, or cases where key witnesses were not contacted.

Tracy said it has also contributed to increased understanding and co-operation between advocacy groups and police, and greater public trust in the force. But she said the most important impact is that the police investigations are stronger, because officers expect their work to be scrutinized.

"We have disagreed from time to time, but I think the give and take of it has been a learning for both sides," she said. "It's not just a question that the unfounded rate is basically where it should be, but it's really that the police investigations are better."

The Ontario government said the projects will provide "a more compassionate, sensitive response when survivors of sexual violence come forward and report their experiences" and will enhance police investigative practices.

Other projects include a child- and youth-focused sexual assault advocacy centre in Barrie, a private and secure location for victim interviews with provincial police in two northern communities outside of the area detachments, and several police training programs. 

Police in Windsor will set up an online tool allowing complainants to make a report online, which they hope will reduce barriers to reporting, but will also provide victims with resources if they indicate they don't want police involvement.

Police services will be asked for the next round of proposals in the spring of 2018.

— By Laura Kane in Vancouver

The Canadian Press