Hamilton

Sexual assault survivor says police 'unfounded' numbers are no surprise

When Shannon Balfour read that 70 per cent of Hamilton Police Service sexual assault cases from 2010 to 2016 were incorrectly deemed unfounded, she knew exactly why.

Shannon Balfour says she felt interrogated by police after she was sexually assaulted

"There was a lot of internal victim blaming I had to deal with," says Shannon Balfour after being interviewed by police about a sexual assault. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

It was McMaster University's Welcome Week 2014, and Shannon Balfour found herself in a small room, looking at three police officers.

She'd just attended a Bingo Players concert and been pinned between two older students. Balfour, who was 17 and 5'1", couldn't escape them. The older students groped and violated her, she said. They ordered her to leave with them. One of them covered her mouth.

She ended up in a room with three male Hamilton police officers that night, watching them alternately stand and sit as they told her there was no point in pressing charges. There was no physical evidence anyway.

It felt, Balfour said, like an interrogation.

"I felt a little bit brushed off, and a little bit 'OK, so they touched you inappropriately, but what's the issue?' sort of thing."

"They repeatedly asked if I was intoxicated."

The experience was so discouraging, she said, that when she was sexually assaulted two years later she didn't report it to police. 

All of this came rushing back with a recent report showing that 70 per cent of Hamilton police sex assault cases from 2010 to 2016 were mishandled.

"I was a 17-year-old who didn't know what my rights were," says Shannon Balfour. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

A review team of police and community advocates had unfettered access. It combed through files and hours of recorded interviews. It found more than two-thirds of cases Hamilton police deemed unfounded really weren't.

Reasons, the November report said, include investigators relying on rape myths, interrogating victims like they're suspects, not interviewing relevant witnesses and giving "disproportionate weight" to the accused.

Police are already implementing many of the recommendations. Those include training to understand the neurology of trauma, and having a victim services unit member meet with the victim before the police interview. The community review team will meet every few months to review cases and monitor progress. Police are also asking people who want their unfounded cases reexamined to contact them.

'It's heartbreaking but it's not surprising'

The unit is well intentioned, the report said, but overworked and understaffed. 

"What we saw were good detectives getting bogged down," Lenore Lukasik-Foss, executive director of the Sexual Assault Centre of Hamilton (SACHA) told CBC in November.

Balfour's case wasn't coded as unfounded. Police called hours after the interview, when she was still in bed, and asked if she wanted to press charges, she said. Exhausted and defeated, she said no.

But the issues raised in the report were hauntingly familiar.

"It's heartbreaking but it's not surprising at all," Balfour said. "It sounds right."

Balfour's ordeal began around 10 p.m. She'd just moved to Hamilton and sat alone in her residence room. She could hear the concert from her room. Just go, she thought.

In the room alone

It was a warm night, she said, and she wore shorts and a tank top. She encountered the older students in the crowd. She'd met them briefly earlier that day, she said, while buying a textbook.

The chaos of the crowd brought anonymity, Balfour said. So when she was pinned between them, no one noticed. Not until two first-year students made eye contact with her, she said, and one of them mouthed "are you OK?" She shook her head.

The students yanked her out and rushed away with her, she said, and she went back to her room. A security guard knocked on her door for something unrelated, Balfour said, and she started to cry. "I said, 'I'm really not having a good time right now because I think I was just sexually assaulted."

The security guard took her to her community adviser — an older student assigned to help younger ones — and the pair were taken to the campus security building. Security called police.

Balfour said she wanted to take the community adviser into the interview with her, but police wouldn't allow it.

Victims need help navigating the system

The officers asked "repeatedly" about alcohol, Balfour said. They also mentioned the shorts and tank top. Balfour had two rescuers as witnesses. She even knew how to find the guys.

The officers, Balfour said, told her it wasn't likely to succeed in court. "The overarching message was statistically, these things don't go very far."

Lukasik-Foss says even if Balfour's case isn't among the unfounded, it's important.

"We'd like to look at these kinds of examples where charges didn't proceed as well," she said. "If a survivor/victim feels like they're being interrogated, they're not going to want to proceed."

The key is for "more survivors to feel like they have support people around them," she said. "Having someone who can help you navigate the system is a great plan."

Police 'take all reported occurrences seriously'

Deputy Chief Dan Kinsella issued a prompt response after contacted by CBC about Balfour's case, saying the service would look into how police handled it.

"Please know that the Hamilton Police Service takes all reported occurrences of sexual assault seriously," he said in an email.

The recent review of how police handle sexual assault investigations, and the work with experts and community partners, has helped the service identify and adopt best practices, he said. This will help victims "receive the best possible service and care." 

Kinsella said he couldn't comment specifically on the case, but "based on your inquiry, we will be completing a review of the occurrence and our investigation of the matter," he said. "At the conclusion of our review, we will follow up directly with the victim to discuss the results."

Balfour said after the police interview, she told the story several more times — to the student conduct office, to counsellors, to security.

"I must have told my story over a dozen times, and I reached the point where I don't want to tell it anymore. I'm done."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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

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