Advocates for women say a new pilot project — which allows outside experts in gender-based violence to review sexual assault investigations by police in Ontario and Alberta — will increase the number of charges laid and improve public trust.

Sexual assault investigations in Ottawa, Timmins, Ont., Peterborough, Ont., London, Ont., and Calgary will be reviewed by an outside panel of experts who work with survivors of sexual and domestic violence. Kingston, Ont., and Stratford, Ont., are also part of the pilot and completed their case reviews earlier this fall. 

The Ottawa Rape Crisis Centre and the Ottawa Coalition To End Violence Against Women are spearheading the project in Ontario with funding from Status of Women Canada over three years. 

Experts in violence against women estimate that fewer than one per cent of sexual assaults result in criminal convictions.

But OCTEVAW's executive director, Carrolyn Johnston, said the pilot project could result in systemic change.

Carrolyn Johnston, Ottawa Coalition to End Violence Against Women

Carrolyn Johnston, executive director of the Ottawa Coalition to End Violence Against Women, calls the outside review of how police handle sexual assault investigations 'groundbreaking.'

"As it currently stands, if someone who has come forward to file a report with police and is unhappy with the situation, they have to go forward on their own to make a complaint. This way cases are being reviewed on a system level which will allow us to identify trends or gaps that need to be addressed," she said.

Panel will report back to police every quarter

In the capital, the Ottawa Police Service will hand over cases for review from 2016 and beyond, including 160 sexual assault investigations and 200 domestic violence cases.

Insp. Jamie Dunlop said the force has worked closely with Ontario's privacy commissioner to be as transparent as possible to allow the panel to do its work. Cases involving youth victims or perpetrators won't be turned over, but Dunlop said no other information will be redacted.  

"It didn't make sense to give them [panel] just a vetted file," Dunlop said. "It was important that they were able to see the whole thing to provide us with information that would be useful, and it's important for police to look at this as a tool."

The panel will report back to police every quarter, said Sunny Marriner, executive director of the Ottawa Rape Crisis Centre.

If the panel finds details police missed, the cases will be flagged to allow investigators to re-open cases before potential evidence is lost, she added.

Inspector Jamie Dunlop, Ottawa Police Service

Ottawa police Insp. Jamie Dunlop says the force is handing over more than 350 cases to an outside panel of experts.

Charge rate is low

Marriner has been in discussions with Ottawa police to implement this "Philadelphia model" of reviewing cases for more than three years.

Under the model, experts from outside agencies are given access to police case files to determine if there were any missteps in the investigative process, and to alert investigators to any worrying trends.

The review system was first used in the U.S. in 2000 after an investigation by the Philadelphia Inquirer revealed police in that city were dismissing a disproportionately high number of sexual assault complaints as unfounded. 

A sexual assault complaint is deemed unfounded when an investigator determines no crime occurred.

Marriner says charges are usually only laid in 15 to 20 per cent of sexual assault charges, and that those low levels deter women from coming forward. She believes an outside panel that looks at how police treat victims and investigate a complaint will change that.

"We needed to create something that was systemic, lasting and institutionalized to address those barriers so individual survivors don't have to advocate for themselves," Marriner said. "This opens the door in policing to get more charges in cases where the evidence supports that."