New program to help front-line police deal with sexual assault victims starts today

Ottawa police Staff Sgt. Angela McDade will deliver the first formalized training for front-line officers dealing with sexual assault victims.

Front-line officers will learn to put victims at the centre of their investigations

Ottawa police Staff Sgt. Angela McDade heads the new training program to teach front-line officers how to deal with sexual assault victims. (CBC)

"Listen. Believe. And don't judge."

That's the lesson Staff Sgt. Angela McDade will be teaching to front-line officers in Ottawa' s police force in a new training program starting Wednesday about how to deal with victims of sexual assault at the beginning of cases.

"There are a number of things we can improve on, and one would be our service to victims right from the beginning, just to know what they're thinking, maybe having a little more education on how trauma impacts a victim and how to communicate with that victim," McDade, head of the Ottawa Police Service's sexual assault and child abuse unit, told CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning on Wednesday.

I've come to realize it's really the victim that leads the investigation.- Staff Sgt. Angela McDade, head of the Ottawa police sexual assualt and child abuse unit

While the sexual assault unit has always shared its expertise in dealing with victims of this sort of crime with front-line officers who are usually the first to be at the scene, or taking a victim's complaint, the force is simply too large to communicate effectively on an ad hoc basis. That's why a formal program was created.

McDade, who will be delivering the police's new sexual assault response training, said one of the key lessons for officers to learn in a sexual assault investigation is that the victim is at the centre of the entire case.

"I've really come to realize it's really the victim that leads the investigation," McDade told Ottawa Morning host Robyn Bresnahan.

"They're the ones that decide whether we move forward or not. And that was one of the toughest things to understand when I first came into the unit because that's not normally the case with aggravated assaults. That was difficult, letting go. It's the victim that really has control over how the investigation will proceed or not proceed."

Need for sensitive dialogue

Police had community consultations with front-line agencies such as the Ottawa Rape Crisis Centre, in November 2014, that informed what the training sessions should accomplish.

"They want — when the first contact with the victim happens — to really think about the victim and not the investigation and laying charges," said McDade. "To really pay attention to what the victim's saying, ensure they get medical care and that they have contacts with support agencies."

The staff sergeant pointed out that just because she'll be training front-line officers to "believe" and "not judge," doesn't mean that officers regularly mistrust victims.

"There will be the odd victim that we have reason to believe they're not telling us the full story," said McDade. "And we want to be cautious that just because we have a few victims that, for whatever reason, don't tell us the full truth, we don't want that to impact how we treat all victims. We want to make sure we have a very welcoming, sensitive dialogue with a victim when they come forward."

According to police data, less than half of sexual assault complaints resulted in a charge from 2008 to 2014.

McDade said the new training might help improve those statistics, but likely only a little. 

"If we attend a scene, and we know exactly on the front line what our investigators need, that might help set the foundation for a really good investigation. Also, the first contact with the victim sets the precedence for future interviews with that victim, and trust-building."

And yet, McDade said, in the end, "it's always about the evidence. And sometimes these are very difficult cases to investigate because sometimes there's just a lack of evidence."