All nine municipal police forces in New Brunswick will be reviewing sexual assault cases they classified as "unfounded" between 2010 and 2014, the president of the New Brunswick Association of Chiefs of Police confirmed on Thursday.
RCMP detachments across the province and the rest of the country are undertaking reviews of 2016 cases deemed "unfounded" and "a sample of historical cases," according to a statement.
The reviews come after a 20-month investigation by the Globe and Mail into sexual assault cases across Canada found New Brunswick had an "unfounded" rate of 32 per cent, compared to the national average of 19.39 per cent.
"New Brunswick was singled out as having the highest number of unfounded reports," meaning police did not believe a crime had occurred, said Paul Fiander, who is also the chief of the Miramichi Police Force.
'We want to ensure that those cases were indeed properly investigated.' - John Bates, Saint John police chief
"As a result of that, [the chiefs] felt it would be prudent for all of the agencies to take a look at the 'unfounded' and see if there was anything that is identified that would change anything at the end of the day," he said. "We don't know that, and that is why the review is being undertaken."
The police forces are: Bathurst, Edmundston, Fredericton, Grand Falls, Miramichi, Kennebecasis Regional, Saint John, Woodstock and the BNPP Regional Police Force, which covers Beresford, Nigadoo, Petit-Rocher and Pointe-Verte on the Acadian peninsula.
Some of the reviews are already underway, including the one by the Saint John Police Force, which had an "unfounded" rate of 51 per cent.
Fiander could not say how many cases are involved provincewide, or how long the reviews will take.
But in Miramichi, there are 27 files, which he expects to be reviewed within the next several weeks by a three-person team — a veteran investigator, a member of management who reads files, and the systems co-ordinator.
It's unclear whether all of the results will be made public, but Fiander said he will release the Miramichi findings and Saint John Police Force Chief John Bates has committed to releasing his city's results.
Saint John police investigated 617 alleged sexual assaults during the period in question. Of those, about 314 were deemed unfounded.
Bates said unfounded as a classification is "not a clearly defined term and is applied differently across many jurisdictions."
In 2014, the Saint John force "became aware" that its use of the classification was "being applied too broadly," he said in a statement.
'This is a serious matter and a review of policies and procedures with respect to the investigation of cases of sexual assault is the right thing to do.' - Denis Landry, Justice minister
"Recognizing a need to further define our use of 'unfounded,' we reassessed how we applied the classification so as to be more aligned with our counterparts."
Between 2014 and 2016, the use of "unfounded" classifications dropped 50 per cent, compared to 2010 through 2013, said Bates.
"We want to ensure that those cases were indeed properly investigated and that the correct post-investigation classification was assigned," he said.
Bates said he anticipates "working closely" with other forces across the country to standardize data classifications and measurement "to assist in more accurate studies and reporting.
The Saint John force takes sexual assault allegations and the protection of victims' rights "very seriously and always strives to do better to ensure victims are heard and supported," he said.
Fredericton Police Force Chief Leanne Fitch was unavailable for comment on Thursday but said in an email she has "convened a group to meet to start a review process."
Sixteen per cent of the 325 cases investigated by Fredericton police between 2010 and 2014 were deemed unfounded, according to the Globe and Mail investigation.
In Moncton, where Codiac Regional RCMP investigated 667 sexual assault complaints during the same period, the "unfounded" rate was 33 per cent.
RCMP update sexual offences policy
Nationally, the RCMP had an "unfounded" rate of 17 per cent, but data requests for 140 jurisdictions remain outstanding, the Globe and Mail reported.
Commanding officers of RCMP divisions across Canada "have been directed to review their unfounded sexual assault cases from 2016 for compliance with RCMP policy, and the reasonableness and propriety of decision making having regard for the evidence," according to a statement released by the national police force late Thursday afternoon.
"The RCMP will also be reviewing a sample of historical cases," after an "appropriate, co-ordinated national response is put in place," it said.
"Should the review identify gaps in how sexual assaults are currently investigated, the RCMP will review additional cases and consider further policy updates and/or training."
The RCMP has updated its national policy on sexual offences "in recent months," according to the release. The updated policy has not yet been made public but includes "additional guidance on the appropriate classification of an investigation," it said.
New Brunswick Justice and Public Safety Minister Denis Landry told CBC News he is pleased all police agencies in New Brunswick "are practising due diligence in examining these cases."
Victims must have trust in law enforcement, and their safety is "of utmost importance," Landry wrote in an email.
"This is a serious matter and a review of policies and procedures with respect to the investigation of cases of sexual assault is the right thing to do."