Police board votes for review of Hamilton's 'unfounded' sex assault allegations

Hamilton's police board has voted to request a review of all "unfounded" sexual assault cases going back to 2010 with a report back to the board.

'We already were looking into it, we didn't have to wait for [the Globe story]': Chief Eric Girt

Madeleine Levy, vice-chair of the Hamilton police services board, raised a recent investigation showing 30 per cent of sexual assault claims made with Hamilton police are dismissed as 'unfounded'. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

Hamilton's police board voted Thursday to request a review of all "unfounded" sexual assault cases going back to 2010 with a report back to the board. 

The request comes on the heels of a Globe and Mail investigation that explored how often police services in Canada dismiss a sexual assault complaint as "unfounded." It showed police in Hamilton and Halton and a number of other Ontario services well above the national average of 19 per cent. Hamilton's rate is 30 per cent.

When an allegation is made to police and it is deemed unfounded, that means the investigator doesn't believe a criminal offence was attempted or occurred.

Mayor Fred Eisenberger formally requested the review Thursday. 

"It's certainly a significant enough issue … when you see a disparity like that it sets off some alarm signals," he said.

Vice-chair Madeleine Levy had raised the issue a moment earlier, saying she was finding it confusing to read the Globe's story and then explanations offered by Hamilton police to CBC News in recent days about their own internal statistics. 

"I think it's important for us to know about what has occurred here," Levy said.

In other cities like London, Ont., police services voluntarily undertook a full review of their cases. In Hamilton, police had to be asked by the board to commit to a full review.

During the meeting, Police Chief Eric Girt addressed the discrepancies between two sets of statistics that the service has presented around the issue.

Hamilton police say internal statistics  it keeps — not its own officially recorded ones — are the best measure of how well it handles sexual assault complaints.

"The distinction is between how [Uniform Crime Reporting] statistics are gathered for the purposes of Statistics Canada," Girt said. "Alternately, we do further analysis of work, and to say that there's not standardization across services I think is self evident."

'We were already looking into it'

After the meeting, asked why other services would commit to reviews without contesting based on internal statistics, Girt was adamant.

Chief Eric Girt committed to do a review of all sexual assault claims made to the service going back to 2010 in response to a motion from Hamilton police services board on Thursday. (Kelly Bennett/CBC)

"My point is we already were looking into it, we didn't have to wait for [the Globe story] to happen. We'd already looked into it," Girt said. "My point is we're being more deliberate. We already undertook to do that review. And we've been seeing the reductions in those rates of clearing as unfounded."

Insp. David Hennick previously told CBC News the service began its review in 2015. Girt said Thursday the service had reviewed cases for 2014 and 2015, and with the board direction will now review back to 2010.

The sexual assault unit own internal numbers indicate it is close to the national average and in some instances below it for recent years. But its numbers only account for victims 16 and over. The unit that deals with child sexual assault has an unfounded rate of 34.5  per cent for 2016 (the only year re-examined). 

The internal numbers also show police "officially" reported 470 sex assault complaints in 2014, but after review, they say that number should actually be 683.

Blair Crew, a University of Ottawa professor who has studied the issue of policing and "unfounded" sexual assaults says the reliance on internal statistics over the official system all police forces use is a "PR smokescreen."