Police will sit down Tuesday for the first of many meetings with members of the community to discuss the high number of sexual assault cases designated "unfounded" in Waterloo Region. 

A national report by the Globe and Mail listed the rate of cases in Waterloo Region at 27 per cent between 2010 and 2014, a number higher than the national rate of 19.4 per cent.

The first meeting Tuesday between police and over 20 community members will determine the course of action future meetings will take. And there has been talk of the local group implementing the well-known Philadelphia Case Review Model for its work.

What is the Philadelphia Model?

It was developed in the year 2000 and subsequently has been copied by many communities across the U.S.  

Two parallel issues in 1999-2000 in the large American city prompted the first review:

  • An investigative report by the Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper determined city police had not been properly investigating sex crimes.  
  • A serial predator known as the "centre-city rapist" connected to nine sexual assaults and the murder of one woman was on the loose. 

Considered a bold move at the time, the review was initiated by now-deceased Philadelphia police commissioner John Timoney, who approached the Women's Law Project and other community members to ask for help in reviewing the cases and help restore community faith in the police.

Carol Tracy, director of the Women's Law Project in Philadelphia, was one of the first panel members. 

Carol Tracy

Carol Tracy, director of the Women's Law Project in Philadelphia was an initial member of the community committee looking at how police in that city investigated sexual assault. (provided photo)

"Police acknowledged they made mistakes," said Tracy.  "Our job was to come in, see if we saw problems, why there was a problem and do all we could to improve how sex crimes cases are investigated and victims are treated."

Issues uncovered by the review included incomplete paperwork about evidence, missing records of rape kit results, reports that indicate victim blaming and witnesses who may have been identified but not questioned.

Tracy told CBC News the initial reviews involved just "unfounded" sexual assault cases but in recent years the panel has evolved into a yearly look at a cross-section of open cases.

"If we see a problem, we set the file aside, then meet with the captain or line supervisor and go over the issue," said Tracy. "Sometimes the problem is solved there, or other times we have a follow up meeting with the captain."

Waterloo panel

Sara Casselman, executive director of the Sexual Assault Support Centre of Waterloo Region is looking forward to talking about the issues survivor advocates have been dealing with for years.

Casselman told CBC News police response is one piece of the picture, but the entire system doesn't serve survivors of sexual violence well. She hopes this review leads to even wider change.

"[It's] really positive that we're heading in a direction where the community is going to be engaged on the issue," said Casselman.

Sara Casselman

Sara Casselman, the executive director of the Sexual Assault Support Centre of Waterloo Region is looking forward to taking part and sharing the issues survivor advocates have been look at for years. (provided photo)

"I'm hoping that this is an opportunity to shift how we respond to survivors and how they experience our criminal justice process, because it's been an issue for a very long time."

How will she measure the group's success?

"To achieve measurable improvements we have to look at data that is trackable. So, we have to look at "unfounded" rates, we have to look at charge rates, we have to look at the data, like number of female police officers in the force."

'Don't be defensive'

Tracy, who says she appreciates the difficult job police have investigating sexual assaults, points out the committee is not there to cross-examine police but describes the yearly review as a "systems improvement project."

Her advice to Waterloo police going into this session: "Don't be defensive about it. Listen to what the advocates say. That's what police say in Philadelphia." 

"The community you're in isn't going to trust you if you don't trust them." One way to build that trust, she said, is to recognize "gender bias that has existed against rape victims throughout society is deep and pervasive. And there's no reason to believe police don't experience it as much as a jury pool experiences it."

Bryan Larkin, Waterloo Police Chief

The Waterloo Regional Police Services Board agreed in a February meeting to review cases and in an open letter to the community Chief Bryan Larkin said he looked forward to the feedback from the community. (Colin Butler/CBC )

Waterloo Regional Police Chief Bryan Larkin said the session is not meant to be a finger-pointing exercise. He's very excited to bring together community partners to collaborate and move toward an enhanced victim-centric approach in how police investigate sexual assaults.

He points to two areas of policing where the approach already has a personal focus: "We believe with our family violence unit and our child/youth advocacy that we're very victim-centred."

He said in the last couple of years reported sexual assaults continue to increase and he views that as a positive sign. 

"I want to focus on 'how do we encourage support and build a model where, if the data reflects that one in five victims reports [an assault], how do we make that better? How do we build confidence in the system so victims come forward, report and feel supported?'"

Listen to Carol Tracy's interview on The Morning Edition with Craig Norris: 

Corrections

  • An earlier version of this story indicated the national rate of "unfounded" cases was 17 per cent. In fact the correct number is 19.4 per cent.
    Apr 24, 2017 5:27 AM ET