Civilian panel should help police investigate sexual assault, advocates say

An advocate for sexual assault victims believes police officers should invite outside experts to audit their investigations.

Lauded Philadelphia model adopted by some Canadian cities, but not yet in Manitoba

Sunny Marriner, executive director of the Ottawa Rape Crisis Centre, is leading a nationwide movement to involve agencies such as crisis centres when police investigate sexual assault cases. (CBC)

An advocate for sexual assault victims believes police officers should invite outside experts to audit their investigations.

Sunny Marriner, the executive director of the Ottawa Rape Crisis Centre, is leading a pilot project in Ontario that has expanded to nine Canadian cities — but none in Manitoba. 

She says police agencies should unite with sexual assault centres to ensure their investigations are conducted fairly.

Organizations such as hers are "talking to the survivors who report, but they are also talking to the 95 per cent of survivors in that community who do not report," Marriner said. "There's a huge well of knowledge that this group of people have in sexual violence."

Marriner spoke Friday morning to a national conference of police in Winnipeg on the high number of sexual assaults reports that police dismiss as baseless.

High number of 'unfounded' claims

A 20-month investigation by the Globe and Mail published last year found that one in five sexual assault claims are considered "unfounded," which means investigators ruled a crime either never occurred or was never attempted.

They found the national unfounded rate of 19.39 per cent for sexual assault is disproportionately higher than any other type of crime.

In response, police agencies across the country, including forces in Ottawa, Calgary and London, Ont., are working with a civilian panel to improve their investigative process. It is referred to as the "Philadelphia model."

In Winnipeg, two per cent of complaints are considered unfounded, the Globe and Mail investigation found.

Marriner said survivors of sexual violence sometimes worry they won't be believed.

That's a massive, massive barrier to survivors.- Sunny Marriner, executive director of the Ottawa Rape Crisis Centre

"It exists in terms of reporting to police, but it also exists in the community and with family members and with friends and other people in their lives," she said Friday during the Canadian Association of Police Governance conference. "That's a massive, massive barrier to survivors."

Under the Philadelphia model, police files are shared with outside agencies to determine whether there were any missteps in the investigative process, and alert investigators to any worrying trends.

It was first used in the U.S. in 2000 after a newspaper investigation revealed the disproportionately high number of sexual assault complaints considered to be unfounded in Philadelphia, Pa.

The review turned up incomplete paperwork, missing records, allegations of victim-blaming and witnesses who should have been questioned but weren't.

None of Manitoba's police agencies have inquired about adopting the pilot, Marriner says.

Holly Johnson, a retired criminology professor at the University of Ottawa, led a research study that asked women about their interactions with police when reporting crimes of violence, which included positive and negative experiences.

She isn't surprised that sexual assault victims are hesitant to share their stories with police.

"I think there is deep-seated belief in our society that women lie about sexual violence, and they consented and that they've changed their mind afterwards," Johnson said. "It's not surprising to me that it's also embedded in police culture as well as in the courts."

Brandon Mayor Rick Chrest believes the Philadelphia model is worth considering. The city's police service had an 18 per cent unfounded rate, the Globe and Mail investigation found.

"I was certainly taking notes," Chrest said, adding it would require support from the Brandon Police Board.

Winnipeg police satisfied 

The Winnipeg Police Service believes it has the right systems in place, since its unfounded rate is significantly lower at two per cent.

"We will always strive for improvement but with our present model, we are very proud the work WPS does in investigating sexual assault cases," a police statement read.

The RCMP pledged last year to re-examine every sexual assault case since 2015 where no charges were laid. A response for comment was not immediately returned.

​Anna Pazdzierski, who ran the Nova House women's shelter in Selkirk until her retirement this year, says victim advocates would be happy to help police.

"Women are much more able and willing to talk with people they have relationships with."


Ian Froese

Provincial Affairs Reporter

Ian Froese covers provincial politics and its impact for CBC Manitoba. He previously reported on a bit of everything for newspapers. You can reach him at