Sex assault expert calls Hamilton police use of 'internal' stats a 'PR smokescreen'

Hamilton police are mounting a "PR smokescreen" by claiming internal statistics — not its own officially recorded ones — are the best measure of how well it handles sexual assault complaints, says a legal expert who has studied sexual assault issues.

Service say the internal stats, not official ones, are the best way to assess its handling of sexual assaults

Almost one in three allegations of sexual assault in Hamilton are dismissed as baseless, an investigation by The Globe and Mail has revealed. Hamilton police dispute those numbers, and say their own statistics provide greater context. (Adam Carter/CBC)

Hamilton police are mounting a "PR smokescreen" by claiming internal statistics — not its own officially recorded ones — are the best measure of how well it handles sexual assault complaints, says a legal expert who has studied sexual assault issues.

The official statistics show the service designates 30 per cent of sexual assault complaints as unfounded — a rate that is well above the national average.

But the service says those numbers are not accurate; that it has other numbers that show it is much closer to the national average and in some cases below it. 

Blair Crew, a lawyer and University of Ottawa law professor, isn't buying it.

"I would say whatever numbers [police] sent out before [they] had to do a PR job on this, those are the numbers that should be the most reliable," said Crew.

"Of course this looks like a smokescreen."

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

The numbers stem from 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.

Two sets of numbers

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.

They're not responding with different figures until they're called out on the first one.- Blair Crew, lawyer and University of Ottawa law professor

In response, Hamilton's police sex assault unit produced a second set of statistics, which they say reflect numbers on a "granular level," and give a more accurate picture of the work being done by the unit.

These differ from the first set of statistics, which were derived from an official system. Both sets of statistics originate from Hamilton police itself.

As an example, Insp. Dave Hennick told CBC News that the numbers that police released to the Globe say the service received 470 sex assault complaints in 2014, but after review, that the number should actually be 683.

Through those statistics, Hennick said, the service's unfounded rates are actually better than they seemed in the Globe's report, and decreasing through the years.

Where did the missing cases go?

It's not clear why the service is not including these cases in its official reporting. Hennick did not answer repeated requests for clarification on the issue.

At the city's police board meeting Thursday, Chief Eric Girt said that the sex assault unit's internal statistics have more value than what was presented in the Globe's story. 

"We have to comply legally with what [Statistics Canada] requires us to provide, but that doesn't mean we don't do further analysis to get a better picture internally," he said.

The service's second set of numbers were only produced after media requests about the issue started flowing in once the Globe's story was published — a move Crew questioned.

What sorts of problems do you have when you're missing numbers like that?- Blair Crew

"They're not responding with different figures until they're called out on the first one," he said.

Crew — who has specifically researched the issue of unfounded sex assault claims — also wondered how there could be discrepancies of 213 cases in a single year.

"What sorts of problems do you have when you're missing numbers like that?" he asked.

Requests to speak to a Hamilton police representative about what this means about statistics gathering as a whole at the service were not returned.

In the wake of the Globe's investigation, police services in London and York Region, as well as the OPP, have committed to a review of previous sexual assault cases.

London police even had the exact same unfounded rate as Hamilton, at 30 per cent.

Before Thursday's review was announced, Crew questioned why Hamilton police haven't committed to a full review in light of the Globe's investigation.

"If you felt like you didn't have anything to hide, why would you be resistant to a review as other police forces have done?" he asked.

In a previous interview, Hennick told CBC News that after police received the Globe's request for statistics in 2015, they started reviewing the service's numbers.

"We undertook a review [in 2015] for a closer look at how sexual assaults were being investigated," Hennick said. That involved looking at the service's numbers, but also its practices when it comes to how officers handled sexual assault complaints.

Police say national system standard has 'limitations'

Hennick said they found that statistics for the whole police service inputted into the Uniform Crime Reporting Survey (UCR) didn't capture all the cases that had been dealt with on a "granular level."

"We have recognized there are limitations in the UCR reporting," he said.

But UCR reporting has been the standard way that police services across the country have been reporting crime statistics since 1962, said Alex Smale, a senior technical officer for Statistics Canada.

"All police services in Canada are on board with the UCR," he said.

Though police across the country have to use UCR to report cases, Statistics Canada doesn't require them to send in cases that were determined to be unfounded.

In a statement, the organization said that's because the "quality of data presents huge inconsistencies to a point where it would be impossible to interpret [it]."

Hamilton police say that as part of that  2015 review they implemented different training techniques through partner agencies to better deal with victims in sex assault situations.



Adam Carter


Adam Carter is a Newfoundlander who now calls Toronto home. You can follow him on Twitter @AdamCarterCBC or drop him an email at adam.carter@cbc.ca.