Nova Scotia

Rehtaeh Parsons case a 'tragedy' and changes have been made: police

New sexual assault investigators are given more training and officers across the province are better briefed on how to deal with cyberbullying, two of the changes police say they have instituted to better deal with such cases.

'Significant challenges' for police included 18 homicide investigations that year

Halifax Regional Police Chief Jean-Michel Blais says technology police use to investigate cyberbullying has improved in the years since Rehtaeh Parsons's death. (CBC)

New sexual assault investigators are given more training and officers across the province are better briefed on how to deal with cyberbullying, two of the changes police say they have instituted to better deal with such cases.

Halifax Regional Police and RCMP were responding Thursday to a review that looked at how police and prosecutors handled the case of Cole Harbour teenager Rehteah Parsons.

The family of the girl says she was sexually assaulted at a 2011 house party and a photo of the incident was later circulated. Parsons died in 2013 after attempting suicide.

The report by former Ontario assistant attorney general Murray Segal recommends a series of improvements to police policies and procedures related to sexual violence and cyberbullying.

Halifax Regional Police Chief Jean-Michel Blais says police have made several changes since the Parsons case. For instance, investigators new to the sexual assault unit are given more training, including on how to interview child victims. 

"We want to assure our citizens that our police employees are there for people in crisis," Blais told a press conference.

"We do care and we need victims to come forward so that we can help investigate these crimes. Rehtaeh's death was a tragedy."

Rehtaeh Parsons’s family says she ended her own life following months of bullying after she was allegedly sexually assaulted by four boys and a photo of the incident was distributed. (Facebook)

Among several concerns noted in his report, Segal says the investigation took too long and the investigator's workload played a role in that.

Blais says sexual assault investigators are no longer called on to help with serious crime cases that don't involve sexualized violence. He says in 2011, when police received Parsons's complaint, there were 18 homicide investigations in the city. 

"There were significant challenges," he said. 

Another issue raised in the review was that proper protocols were not followed by the first RCMP officer to speak with Parsons and the initial interview was not recorded.

RCMP Acting Chief Supt. Dennis Daley says the officer meant well. He said Const. Kim Murphy had "the best of intentions trying to support and trying to provide assistance not only to Rehtaeh but also her entire family." 

"There were some shortcomings and for that we already expressed an apology that it may, to a degree, have impacted the investigation," said Daley.

Access to schools

The review also found police encountered barriers when they tried to interview students at Parsons's school. The report said the constable who worked as a liaison officer at Cole Harbour High was told that since the alleged incidents didn't happen at the school, police weren't allowed to investigate on the property. 

Justice Minister Diana Whalen says the provincial government plans to strengthen the role of school liaison officers so they can assist with criminal investigations. She said the Education Act may have acted as a barrier. 

Blais said police have made inroads with working with boards and individual schools. The Halifax Regional School Board says there's been a protocol with police since 2010 that sets out the terms for investigations.

"All parties agree that formal interviews of students are best suited to take place off of school grounds," a spokesperson for the board said in an email. 

The board says it reviews the protocol periodically and will include recommendations from Segal's report in that context. 

Crowns receive more training

The independent review also found human error played a role in the Crown's decision not to recommend child pornography charges. 

Whalen said she continues to have confidence in the Public Prosecution Service and the level of training is improving.

She also said the province has better laws in place to handle a similar case in the future, citing a new sexual violence strategy, new cyberbullying legislation and changes to the Criminal Code.

"It would be a whole different set of circumstances, really, with some of the laws we've put in place just in the last couple of years federally and provincially," she said.