Review team for 'unfounded' sexual assault cases hasn't met in a year

A team of Hamilton police and community advocates who review unfounded sexual assault cases hasn't met during the pandemic. They've reviewed cases before, and one led to charges.

6 cases reopened since first report, and 1 led to charges

The Sexual Assault Community Review team hasn't met in person due to the pandemic, and confidentiality concerns prevent it from meeting online. (Adam Carter/CBC)

A team of Hamilton police and community advocates wanting to meet four times a year to review all unfounded sexual assault cases — as well as those with "insufficient evidence" and with a disposition that ends with no charges laid — didn't meet once in 2020. 

The group arose from a report by a community review team that found in 2018 that 70 per cent of sexual assault cases that Hamilton police deemed unfounded really weren't.

Six cases have since been reopened as a result of that report, and one has led to charges. 

"The unfounded case review is working and it is a positive impact for our communities and a positive impact for survivors of sexual violence, " said Jessica Bonilla-Damptey, executive director of the Sexual Assault Centre of Hamilton (SACHA.)

"Reviewing cases that have been coded unfounded is critical in importance to ensure that our police services are accountable to the communities that they serve." 

Confidentiality, safety are obstacles to meeting

But the team hasn't met in a year because of pandemic restrictions. 

In a December police services board meeting, Det. Sgt. Tammi Ewart said confidentiality issues were a factor. The team will be suspended until it's able to satisfy those concerns or meet in person, she said. 

Bonilla-Damptey said reviewers normally look at a television screen in a closed office and comb through paper files, which can't be emailed. 

"The desire to meet is there," she said. "However, because of the pandemic and because of safety and security for everybody, just being able to meet is not possible."

Not meeting was a decision by all team members, not just one service, Bonilla-Damptey said. 

Police plan to review two unfounded cases from 2020 and a sample of 86 cases coded as insufficient evidence. 

"We do feel we're on track to be able to keep up with those cases once we're able to meet again," Ewart said. 

The team met three times the year before, when it reviewed nine unfounded cases and 11 insufficient evidence cases. 

It found all "concluded correctly," but also that inappropriate language was used in Hamilton officers' report writing that relied upon rape myths. The team recommended ongoing training, and police have scheduled a 90-minute block for the 2020-2021 training year.

6 cases reopened, 1 with charges 

The community review report was commissioned by police in 2018 and included members of SACHA, the Native Women's Centre, Hamilton Health Sciences' Domestic Violence Care Centre, and police investigators, among others. 

It found that investigators relied on rape myths, interrogated victims as if they were the perpetrators, and gave disproportionate weight to what the accused said. 

The same year the report came out, police issued a media release asking anyone with a case that was determined as unfounded and wanted to reopen it to contact them. Six were reopened. 

Of these, police say two cases were eliminated because they "did not apply;" two were third-party requests, but the victim didn't consent to reopening; one withdrew from participation; and one ended in charges. 

"[Having charges placed] shows the importance of having community reviews done on the services that are provided by the City of Hamilton," Bonilla-Damptey said. 

Overworked officers

One of the reasons officers mishandled cases, the team found in 2018, was that the detectives in the sexual assault unit had too heavy of a workload to manage. Police say each detective was juggling around 80 cases a year.

The police board has since approved the hiring of two more detective constables, and one started in September of last year. The other was deferred to start in 2020, police say, but was deferred a second time to 2021. 

Having the extra detective, according to the December 2020 update, means people aren't overworked and detectives are completing investigations quicker.

The number of average days to finish one case dropped from 100 in 2018 to 76 in 2019. The service expects the caseload for each officer to decrease to 43 cases each in 2021. 

Victim services pilot continues

In 2019, police ran a pilot program where victims of sexual assault could access a member of victim services, who would be available at the onset of interactions with detectives and during the process. All 52 people who gave feedback said that this was helpful to them, so a coordinator was hired this past September. 

The coordinator also provides safety planning and offers community resources for long-term support, says the report. 

Hamilton claims to be the only service with this program. 

The team also recommended ongoing continuous education and training focusing on the neurobiology of trauma and the dynamics of sexual violence, such as rape culture, myths and unconscious bias. 

That happened in 2019, but the training was suspended in 2020. The service said this pause is also because of the pandemic.

Reviewing unclear policies

A course on interviewing victims of crime with special attention to vulnerable populations will be offered to 16 officers this month.

Hamilton police are implementing other recommendations. That includes reviewing its policies and procedures. 

The Hamilton Police Service is reviewing its domestic sexual assault policy, which it said wasn't "clear" and didn't support best practices. The revision includes having criminal investigation detectives receive enhanced training on sexual assault investigations. 

More cases ending in charges

Thirty six per cent of the completed investigations by the Hamilton police into sexual assault last year ended in charges. 

"Detectives are better educated on issues related to sexual violence than they were in previous years, and thus are conducting more thorough investigations, many of which are resulting in charges," reads the report. 

Of the 433 investigations in 2019, there were 154 that ended in charges. In 2014, only 16 per cent of 410 cases had people who were charged.