Ottawa police see increase in sexual assault reports

More people in Ottawa are reporting sexual assaults to police officers, but advocates say unless police lay more charges victims will have little trust in the justice system.

Police-reported sexual assaults rose about 15 per cent in 2016: StatsCan

The number of sexual assault reports has steadily increased for Ottawa police, but the number of charges laid each year has remained largely the same, according to Statistics Canada. (CBC)

More people in Ottawa are reporting sexual assaults to police officers, but advocates say police are falling behind when it comes to laying charges. 

Police-reported sexual assaults increased about 15 per cent from 659 in 2015 to 754 in 2016, according to new data from Statistics Canada.

"I don't want people to necessarily attribute that to more sexual assaults happening," said Jamie Dunlop, an inspector with Ottawa police. He explained the increase is largely due to a rise in the number of people reporting the assaults to police.

The sexual assault and child abuse unit of the Ottawa police has been steadily growing to meet that increase; more reporting means more staff is needed. 

"The unit certainly … feels it from a perspective of staffing," Dunlop said. "We are most definitely seeing in the unit that their work load has gone up."

The impact of unfounded cases 

But the increasing workload doesn't tell the whole story.

"As we know in sexual assault, only about five per cent of sexual assaults are reported," Dunlop said.

If 2016's 743 cases only comprise five per cent of Ottawa's sexual assaults, then the total would sit at just under 15,000 assaults each year — or an average of 41 every day. Statistics Canada defines a sexual assault as an incident of unwanted sexual activity, including sexual attacks and sexual touching.

The police service faced criticism from advocates in recent years after data revealed that officers dismissed almost 30 per cent of reported sexual assaults as "unfounded." 

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

Dunlop said his unit is working to further lower the unfounded rate, which dropped to eight per cent in 2016. "There's nothing in the unfounded definition that says we don't believe," he said. 

Though the number of police-reported sexual assaults has risen each year, the rate of charges laid has remained relatively stagnant around 20 per cent.

Insp. Jamie Dunlop says his unit has had to grow to accommodate the increasing reports of sexual assault. (Amanda Pfeffer)

Charges laid as measuring stick of success

While police are seeing increased reporting rates, sexual assault support services around the city say they're still serving clientele who never got to see their alleged attackers face legal consequences.

"We serve a lot of people who don't think reporting to the police is an option," said Brie Davies, a service coordinator at the Sexual Assault Support Centre of Ottawa.

"It's not a just matter of going to the police and saying 'this person sexually assaulted me,' and then the person gets arrested, then they get charged and then they go to jail. That's not the lived reality of 97 per cent of people who experience sexual violence."

More people would come forward if they felt more confident that they would be believed and heard and validated.- Brie Davies, sexual assault support worker

If the reporting rates are going up, Davies said the real test for the police is boosting the rate of charges laid to match the reports.

"More people would come forward if they felt more confident that they would be believed and heard and validated."

Following three years of negotiations, the Ottawa Police Service agreed to adopt a case review model for sexual assault cases after initially rejecting a proposal from women's advocates in 2015.

Under the model, a review panel made up of experts who work in the field of violence against women will re-examine unfounded sexual assault cases files to identify any missteps or improperly investigated cases. A review panel is expected to do its first audit with Ottawa police in October.