Winnipeg doing more for victims of sex assault
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 16/02/2017 (2233 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
How many women who make a sexual assault complaint to police are outright lying? According to some Canadian police forces, more than half of sexual assault complaints are unfounded. Yet only two per cent of complaints to Winnipeg police are unfounded.
Police services across the country are supposed to categorize a complaint as “unfounded” if they believe that no crime was attempted or occurred and therefore no further investigation is warranted. According to recent media reports, sexual assault cases are far more likely than other cases to be designated as unfounded. On average, 20 per cent of sexual assault complaints made to police forces across the country are categorized as “unfounded,” with this number skyrocketing to more than 50 per cent in some police forces. In contrast, at two per cent, the Winnipeg Police Service has the lowest unfounded rate in the country.
Winnipeg police are not seeking accolades for having a low unfounded rate. Some members believe the high unfounded rates recorded by other police forces might be due to incorrect data entry, such as categorizing a complaint as “unfounded” when it should have been categorized as “unsolved.” They also recognize they have resources that smaller police forces cannot access. Nonetheless, we should still ask: why is the local unfounded rate so low?
All sexual assault cases in Winnipeg are investigated by specially trained officers belonging to the sex crimes unit. These officers understand how biased thinking, especially victim-blaming, has tainted interviews with complainants in the past. They also understand how trauma impacts a complainant’s capacity to participate in an interview. If a beat cop is first to the scene, he or she will secure the scene, obtain contact information and make sure the complainant is transferred to medical care. But the actual interviews with complainants are done only by officers assigned to the sex crimes unit.
Designated nurses, who keep up to date on best forensic practices, do the initial physical examinations and collect evidence from complainants. They also discuss health-care needs and concerns and law enforcement reporting options.
After seeing the nurse, most complainants can go home, have a shower, get some sleep and have something to eat before they decide whether to sit down with an investigator for the all-important interview.
The sex crimes unit is well-resourced. An experienced supervisor is always on call and ready to talk if an investigator wants to consult. The unit shares space with the counter-exploitation unit, the child abuse unit and the missing persons unit. When necessary, these units can co-ordinate their work. The caseloads are manageable, which means sex crimes investigators can do their work properly and thoroughly. It is not surprising an assignment to the sex crimes unit is one of the most sought-after in the Winnipeg Police Service.
The unit meets regularly with an interagency working group. Between meetings, if members of this group notice or hear about a problem with how the unit is approaching an issue, they let the unit know.
The unit is also dedicated to raising awareness, and members participate regularly in public education programs on sexual assault. The unit is open to thinking about how to do things better.
The unit is also willing to work with academic researchers. One such project, led by Jane Ursel at the University of Manitoba, seeks to answer the question: “What are the determinants of successful prosecution in sexual assault cases and what are the determinants of case attrition?”
The sex crimes unit and Manitoba prosecutors have agreed to open their files to permit researchers — who are bound by strict ethical guidelines — to track two years’ worth of cases from the victim’s police report until final case disposition.
Sexual assault convictions will always be difficult to obtain. The accused has the right to silence and the burden falls on the Crown to prove the charge beyond a reasonable doubt. In a “he said, she said” scenario without corroborating evidence, it is not difficult to establish reasonable doubt. But ensuring that complainant interviews are appropriately conducted, medical forensics are state-of-the-art, investigators are well-supported, community organizations can give feedback and researchers are welcome all contribute to establishing a stronger foundation for sexual assault prosecutions.
Karen Busby is a law professor and director of the Centre for Human Rights Research at the University of Manitoba.