As Calgary police adopt the Philadelphia Model of reviewing sexual assault cases deemed unfounded, a woman who helped pioneer that model in its eponymous city nearly two decades ago has some advice for officers and agencies here.

The Calgary Police Service announced last week five outside agencies will review cases officers have deemed to be unfounded.

The move, the first of its kind by a department in Canada, follows a national Globe & Mail investigation into the high number of unfounded sexual assault cases across Canada.

Carol Tracy, director of the Women's Law Project in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, was one of the first panel members when the "Philadelphia Case Review Model" was developed in 2000. It has since been adopted by many communities across the U.S.

Group reviews files

Speaking to the Calgary Eyeopener Tuesday, Tracy described the review model as a relatively simple process.

"A group of us from four agencies sit around a table. We review all unfounded rape cases and we also look at a cross section of open cases," she said.

The group is looking to see if the cases have been properly and thoroughly investigated.

"The most important thing we then look for is their gender bias. Are interviews really interrogations? Are unnecessary questions — irrelevant questions — being asked, like what were you wearing? Why were you wearing that? Why were you out by yourself? Questions like that," Tracy said.  

The group makes notes on files if they see a problem. Police officers then review those files, Tracy said, adding "they take this very seriously."

Scandal prompted change

In Philadelphia, the review process began after an invitation from the police commissioner at the time, John Timoney.

"We were in the midst of a scandal in Philadelphia with the police not investigating a large number of sex crimes. [Timoney] understood that the public had lost confidence in the police department, so he came to us and said 'I need to regain the confidence of the public, I need people like you to come in and look at our files and to see if we're figuring out how to do it correctly now,'" she said.  

In Calgary, five agencies are partnering with police on the review: Calgary Sexual Assault Response Team, Calgary Communities Against Sexual Abuse, Sheldon Kennedy Child Advocacy Centre, Alberta Ministry of Status of Women, and the Mount Royal University Sexual Violence Response and Awareness coordinator.

Lessons learned

As Calgary adopts the Philadelphia Model, Tracy shared some lessons from her nearly two decades of involvement in the process.

"It's important to know that we don't see ourselves as re-investigators. We're not acting like police at the table," Tracy said.

While police have learned a lot from listening to outside agencies, Tracy said agencies have also taken away their own lessons.

"This is really hard work. I think that one of the things we've learned as advocates is we are simply reading paper, not interviewing people who have been violated, not interrogating suspects who we think have committed heinous crimes. We're just reading paper, and it's really hard. So we've come to understand how hard these investigations are and that people at times are going to make mistakes," she said.

Tracy also shared a piece of advice for Calgary Police Service.

"Trust the community you're serving, and the community you're serving will begin to trust you," she said.

With files from the Calgary Eyeopener