Review finds 70% of Hamilton 'unfounded' sex assault cases were improperly handled

Investigators relied on rape myths, interrogated victims like they were perpetrators and gave "disproportionate weight" to what the accused said.

Investigators relied on rape myths, interrogated victims and gave 'disproportionate weight' to suspects

A new report paints a troubling picture of sexual assault investigations in Hamilton, including interrogating victims and not ordering forensic tests. (Adam Carter/CBC)

More than two-thirds of sexual assault cases Hamilton police said were unfounded really weren't, a new community report concludes.

Reasons include investigators relying on rape myths, interrogating victims like they're perpetrators and giving "disproportionate weight" to what the accused said.

These findings are from a new sex assault review report coming to Hamilton Police Services board Thursday. The community review report was commissioned by police and included members of the Sexual Assault Centre of Hamilton (SACHA), the Native Women's Centre and police investigators. 

Its conclusions are in stark contrast to those reached by an internal review of unfounded cases done by Hamilton police on their own, which is also included in the overall report.

Overworked unit

The police review found roughly the opposite percentages from the community review, concluding that that 75.1 per cent of unfounded cases were correctly classified as such, while 24.9 per cent weren't. Police did a random audit of more than 700 unfounded cases from 2010 to 2014, including child sex abuse cases. 

All of the folks on the team had moments where it was really difficult to understand what had happened to this woman, this victim- Lenore Lukasik-Foss, SACHA executive director

The community review team did a deeper audit of 63 sexual assault cases deemed unfounded that happened from 2010 to 2016.

It found that only 25 per cent of cases deemed to be unfounded should have been.

The report says 70 per cent were "coded incorrectly," while three per cent were undetermined.

While the community review examined fewer cases, it delved deeper into how each was handled. 

The sexual assault unit is comprised of seven overworked officers handling an average of 90 cases each per year, the report says. 

And that caseload is growing, which means resources are stretched thinner. At peak times in 2008, the unit handled 298 cases, Insp. Dave Hennick of the investigative services unit told CBC. In 2016, that was 545 cases. 

Lenore Lukasik-Foss, SACHA executive director, was part of the nine-person community review team. She noticed the lack of resources too.

Sexual assault cases are "nuanced and resource heavy," she said. "What we saw were good detectives getting bogged down."

Reasons the community report cited for the improper conclusions included:

  • Relevant witnesses weren't interviewed.
  • The proper forensic testing not being done.
  • Officers putting more weight on the stories of suspects than victims.
  • Officers using interrogation techniques with victims.
  • Officers relying too heavily on stories being corroborated.
  • Predetermining an investigation's outcome before it ended.
  • Detectives not applying reasonable grounds.

There was also a "reliance on rape myths," Lukasik-Foss said.

Those myths, she said, included undermining a victim's story because alcohol was involved, or because victim and perpetrator were already in a relationship.

'Really difficult to understand'

Lukasik-Foss said at times, what she saw in the files and videos made her angry.

"All of us were at some point," she said. "All of the folks on the team had moments where it was really difficult to understand what had happened to this woman, this victim."

The issue of police classifying sexual assault complaints as unfounded came to light in 2017, when a Globe and Mail article showed Hamilton police classified 30 per cent of sex assault cases as unfounded. The national average is 19 per cent.

The police services board voted to review the matter, although Hennick says the service has been working on this issue since 2015.

Kudos for the review

The 62-page report recommends hiring two more officers for the sexual assault unit, which would bring the total to nine. It also recommended some measures that are already happening, including having victim services workers meet with victims before they're interviewed by police.

The review also recommends training to understand victim responses and the neurobiology of trauma, better policies, and a model that takes vulnerable populations into consideration, including people with mental health challenges, people who are street involved, and the Indigenous community.

We believe this report identifies where there are gaps in service and how we can address them.- Police Chief Eric Girt

Hennick said the service has already implemented better training for every officer. Investigators threw themselves into this review, he said, and wanted it to be "collaborative" and "transparent."

"I believe we came up with a made-in-Hamilton model," he said, and "I'm really proud of that."

Chief Eric Girt issued a statement calling the review "important."

"In undertaking this review, we had one end goal – to improve service delivery to victims of sexual assault," he said. "We believe this report identifies where there are gaps in service and how we can address them to deliver the best possible response and care to victims."

Lukasik-Foss said the findings told people who work with victims what they already know — that the system is broken.

"We should absolutely be concerned," she said, "but this is not news."


Samantha Craggs is journalist based in Windsor, Ont. She is executive producer of CBC Windsor and previously worked as a reporter and producer in Hamilton, specializing in politics and city hall. Follow her on Twitter at @SamCraggsCBC, or email her at samantha.craggs@cbc.ca