P.E.I. 'refining' how sexual assaults are investigated

A government review of sexual assault case data on P.E.I. has concluded nearly 40 per cent of reported sexual assaults on P.E.I. were ruled "unfounded" by police.

New strategy comes after report showing 40% of reported sexual assaults deemed 'unfounded' by P.E.I. police

P.E.I.'s four police forces were asked by the justice department in early 2017 to review the cases they had coded as unfounded, to determine whether they had classified them correctly. (Blair Gable/Reuters)

The P.E.I. government says it is committed to improving how sexual assaults are investigated after a review concluded nearly 40 per cent of cases reported to Island police departments were ruled unfounded.

The numbers are based on sexual assault case files from the past three years for Charlottetown and Kensington's police forces, and the past six years for Summerside police and Island RCMP. 

"We know the rates of false reporting of sexual assault crimes is very low," said Sigrid Rolfe, co-ordinator of the P.E.I. Rape and Sexual Assault Centre.

"So to see that number of cases coded as unfounded — i.e. not believed — then that doesn't add up to the facts."

Premier Wade MacLauchlan, who also serves as the province's justice minister, says there needs to collaboration among the police forces when it comes to handling sexual assault cases. (CBC)

The four police forces were initially asked by P.E.I.'s  justice department in early 2017 to review the cases they had coded as unfounded, to determine whether they had classified them correctly. 

The department explains in its report that an incident is unfounded if police determine after investigating that "the event did not occur, therefore no violations of the law took place."

Meaning of 'unfounded' disputed

Charlottetown Police Services has disputed that definition, saying from its perspective, unfounded includes cases where there wasn't enough evidence to support a charge, and those where the victim refused to talk.  

In its review, the police force determined that all 107 of its sexual assault cases were classified accurately.  Fifty per cent of those cases remained as unfounded.

Sigrid Rolfe, co-ordinator of the P.E.I. Rape and Sexual Assault Centre, says the number of unfounded sexual assault cases 'doesn't add up to the facts.' (Submitted by Sigrid Rolfe)

While RCMP on P.E.I. reclassified 31 of its 428 sexual assault cases — most to "unsolved-unsubstantiated" — 46 per cent of those cases remain as "unfounded."

"This is more than just an issue of [proper] coding by police," Rolfe said.  "It also speaks to the kinds of investigations that have been going on, and the need for improvement there."

The number of unfounded cases weren't as high in Summerside and Kensington. Fourteen of the 149 sexual assault cases reported to Summerside police's were classified as unfounded, and in Kensington it was three of 11.

In its review of the province's sexual assault case data, P.E.I.'s justice department lays out several steps it's taking to try to improve investigations. 

'We need to work on this'

According to the department, a working group made up of police chiefs, Crown attorneys, victim service staff, and other justice officials is "actively pursuing refinements" to the way sexual assaults are investigated on the Island. 

"We need to work on this, and have collaboration among the police forces, and with the people developing the standards for reporting," said Premier Wade MacLauchlan, who also serves as the province's justice minister. 

"It's absolutely vital that people that have complaints or situations they believe should be dealt with through criminal law, come forward."

Rolfe said she's encouraged to see the department is also considering creating a "sex offence review committee" to more regularly review sexual assault investigations.

According to the department's report, the RCMP is doing its work on this issue, including developing a new training standard for sexual assault investigations.