New Brunswick

Female sergeant will lead Saint John police review of 'unfounded' sexual assaults

A female sergeant has been appointed to oversee the Saint John Police Force's review of sexual assault cases that were classified as "unfounded," dating back to 2010.

Sgt. Debbie Easton has experience with sexual assault investigations and case management, says chief

Saint John Police Force Sgt. Debbie Easton will review the more than 300 sexual assault cases that were classified as "unfounded" between 2010 and 2016. (Canadian Police Curling Championship)

A female sergeant has been appointed to oversee the Saint John Police Force's review of sexual assault cases that were classified as "unfounded," dating back to 2010.

Sgt. Debbie Easton has been seconded from her supervisory role with the patrol unit to work exclusively on the review announced on Thursday, said Chief John Bates.

"She's a great investigator," said Bates, citing Easton's experience dealing with sexual assault investigations, as well as her case management acumen.

"Her name came right to the forefront," he said. "She happens to be a woman, but I can tell you that wasn't part of our decision-making process."

The review comes after a 20-month investigation by The Globe and Mail into sexual assault cases across Canada found New Brunswick had the highest "unfounded" rate in the country at 32 per cent, compared to the national average of 19.39 per cent.

When a case is cleared as "unfounded," it's supposed to mean the investigator does not believe a criminal offence occurred or was attempted.

All nine municipal police forces in New Brunswick will be reviewing sexual assault cases they classified as "unfounded" between 2010 and 2014, the president of the New Brunswick Association of Chiefs of Police Paul Fiander confirmed on Thursday.

RCMP detachments across the province and the rest of the country are undertaking reviews of 2016 cases deemed "unfounded." It will also review a sample of historical cases, according to a statement.

'Unreliable' data

Chief John Bates declined to put an estimated timeline on the review, saying he wants to ensure it's done 'thoroughly.' (Twitter)
The Saint John Police Force's "unfounded" rate for the 617 sexual assault cases it investigated between 2010 and 2014 was 51 per cent, according to The Globe and Mail report earlier this month.

But Bates said police had flagged the data it provided to the national newspaper last May as being unreliable.

"We have discovered some inconsistencies in how we've been clearing the unfounded files and as a result, can't rely on these numbers to accurately reflect the outcome of the investigations," the data submission by Sgt. Lori Magee, obtained by CBC News, states.

"The difference appears to be due to file classification and case management," Magee wrote.

"For example, look at the difference in sexual assault percentages unfounded in 2012 vs 2015. It dropped from 67% to 26%. I suspect this was due to different criteria being applied to the classifications, and not that a third of our [sexual assault investigations] were truly unfounded."

I'm disappointed that the data we supplied with the caveat that we did not consider it to be reliable, was used as though it was the actual numbers.- John Bates, Saint John police chief

Bates said the discrepancy in how different case managers were assigning the "unfounded" classification to files instead of the "cleared otherwise" label, was discovered in 2014, "long before anyone was aware the Globe was doing any kind of research or doing a story on that."

"Cleared otherwise" is supposed to be used to cover a wide range of situations, such as an investigator concluding there isn't enough evidence to lay a charge, Crown prosecutors not wanting to move forward with the case, or the victim not wanting to proceed, he said.

The files were not, however, retroactively reviewed and reclassified at that time, said Bates, who only took over as chief in November 2015.

"I'm disappointed that the data we supplied with the caveat that we did not consider it to be reliable, was used as though it was the actual numbers," he said.

The online version of the Globe and Mail report, which allows users to search the "unfounded" rates in different jurisdictions, does state in a "Notes" box below the Saint John statistics: "Upon responding to our request, the Saint John police service says it has identified problems with how it has been classifying unfounded cases."

Allegations 'treated seriously'

Bates said it's "hurtful" to think that people who came forward with sexual allegations in the past may read the article and feel their complaint was "just summarily dismissed."

"On a go forward [basis], we want to make sure the citizens of Saint John know that people who become victims of sexual assault down the road have an ally in the Saint John Police Force, that their allegations will be treated seriously, and thoroughly investigated."

To that end, Easton will review "each and every one" of the more than 300 files classified as "unfounded" between 2010 and 2014, as well as the additional ones in 2015 and 2016, said Bates.

Her findings will then be reviewed by other senior investigators.

"So it's not going to be one individual person making that decision. We will have a few sets of eyes on it," he said.

If any of the cases "need to be a) reinvestigated, or if more work needs to be done on any of them, we'll look into that, if they need to be re-labelled away from being 'unfounded,' we'll undertake to do that as well."

No deadline

Bates declined to speculate how long the review will take.

"I'm not going to even hazard a guess," he said. "It could be weeks, it could be months."

"I don't want to say, 'We're going to have this done in three months,' and feel that there's any pressure on her to get the job done … under a timeline that we arbitrarily set. 

"It's important that the job is done as thoroughly as possible."

Bates said he also wants the review to "more clearly define what ['unfounded'] means, and what this means to each case manager in our organization so that we are consistent across the board, so that there's no ambiguity when a case is either determined to be 'unfounded,' which I suggest should be a very low number, or 'cleared by charge,' or 'cleared otherwise.'"

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