Panel to review sexual assault cases deemed 'unfounded' by Ottawa police

In a shift toward a model that's been described as the "gold standard" in sexual assault investigations, a panel of women's advocates will soon begin taking a second look at cases deemed unfounded by Ottawa police, CBC News has learned.

'Philadelphia Model' seen as gold standard in sexual assault case review, advocates say

Working toward ending violence women is one of Ottawa police Chief Charles Bordeleau's top three official priorities. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

In a shift toward a model that's been described as the "gold standard" in sexual assault investigations, a panel of women's advocates will soon begin taking a second look at cases deemed unfounded by Ottawa police, CBC News has learned.

For the past three years, agencies involved in combating violence against women in Ottawa have been negotiating with the city's police force to implement what's known as the "Philadelphia Model."

Under the model, experts from outside agencies are given access to police case files to determine if there were any missteps in the investigative process, and to alert investigators to any worrying trends. In Ottawa, it will be implemented in the fall of 2017 and could potentially involve hundreds of cases, CBC News has learned.

The review system was first used in the U.S. in 2000 after an investigation by the Philadelphia Inquirer revealed police in that city were dismissing a disproportionately high number of sexual assault complaints as unfounded. 

A sexual assault complaint is deemed unfounded when an investigator determines no crime occurred.

Carol Tracy, director of the Women's Law Project in Philadelphia, spoke to CBC last month about the model. 

Ottawa police Chief Charles Bordeleau confirmed to CBC he met with local women's advocates in late March to discuss how the model would be adopted locally, and they came to an agreement.

Ottawa police among earliest adopters

Police concerns about violating the privacy of victims emerged as a major stumbling block in getting the project off the ground in Ottawa. Ottawa police had previously said the case files would have to be heavily redacted before being handed over to the review panel, but advocates complained that would render the process useless.

Recent discussions with the Ontario Privacy Commissioner have mitigated those earlier concerns, Bordeleau said in an interview. 

We're pleased that we're going to be one of the first police services to accomplish this.- Police Chief Charles Bordeleau

"We hold privacy very dear to the way we do business in policing. And we're pleased the privacy commissioner agreed and we're pleased now that the advocacy groups that we have been working with for a number of years understand that and appreciate the importance of respecting privacy laws. We're moving forward now with that agreement," the chief said.

"We're pleased that we're going to be one of the first police services to accomplish this, along with some others in the province."

On May 18, the Calgary Police Service announced it would begin external reviews of sexual assault cases.

Force under fire

Combating violence against women is one of Bordeleau's top three official priorities. 

But under Bordeleau the Ottawa Police Service has come under fire in recent years for how some of its officers respond to sexual assault complaints.

A 2015 study by University of Ottawa professor Holly Johnson found some women believed the police officer they first turned to blamed them for the sexual assault, or didn't take their complaint seriously.

Bordeleau said he hopes an external case review will add some "transparency and accountability" to the investigative process. 

'Shooting for October'

Ottawa police are still ironing out the details, including how many cases will be reviewed at a time, how often the reviews will be done and who will sit on the review panel.

Ottawa police Insp. Jamie Dunlop said he met with front-line workers on May 19 to discuss those details before the fall roll-out. "We are definitely shooting for October, and I think we can make that."

Insp. Jamie Dunlop, who is in charge of major case investigations for the Ottawa Police Service, regularly meets with women's advocates. (CBC)

Dunlop said panelists will have to sign a confidentiality agreement and a memorandum of understanding to ensure victims' privacy will be protected. The review is expected to include cases deemed unfounded and cases that were cleared for other reasons.

Ottawa police said they have lowered their unfounded rate to eight per cent in 2016, down from 38 per cent in 2012, according to Johnson's study.

'Huge' interest

One of the leading voices behind the call to adopt a case review model in Canada is Sunny Marriner, executive director of the Ottawa Rape Crisis Centre.

While Ottawa police have lowered their unfounded rate for sexual assaults, Marriner said she is still concerned by the charge rate. Around 80 per cent of sexual assault complaints do not result in charges being laid, according to Marriner.

"From the advocate front-line perspective we believe we can do better," she said.

The benefits to case review exercises are two-fold, she said: not only do they teach police officers how to better respond to traumatized victims, but they also let front-line workers see how the justice system works so they can share those experiences with victims.

"This is not a gotcha [exercise] … It's a goal of trying to move us to laying charges in more situations where charges might be warranted," Marriner said.

The interest in adopting a case review model in Canada has been "huge" in recent months, Marriner said, with Ottawa just one of about 15 police services exploring some aspect of the model.

"I think that that's a testament to the fact that it's been found to be a gold standard in policing violence against women investigations," she said.

"I think as we have police leadership stepping up and committing, more and more services will feel encouraged to take this step, too."