Review finds 70% of Hamilton unfounded sex assault cases were improperly handled

Review finds 70% of Hamilton \unfounded\ sex assault cases were improperly handled
70 per cent of unfounded Hamilton sexual assault cases closed incorrectly
More than two-thirds of sexual assault cases Hamilton police said were unfounded really weren't, a new community report concludes.

Reasons include investigators relying on rape myths, interrogating victims like they're perpetrators and giving "disproportionate weight" to what the accused said.

These findings are from a new sex assault review report coming to Hamilton Police Services board Thursday. The community review report was commissioned by police and included members of the Sexual Assault Centre of Hamilton (SACHA), the Native Women's Centre and police investigators. 

Its conclusions are in stark contrast to those reached by an internal review of unfounded cases done by Hamilton police on their own, which is also included in the overall report.

The police review found roughly the opposite percentages from the community review, concluding that that 75.1 per cent of unfounded cases were correctly classified as such, while 24.9 per cent weren't. Police reviewed more than 700 unfounded cases from 2010 to 2014, including child sex abuse cases. 

All of the folks on the team had moments where it was really difficult to understand what had happened to this woman, this victim- Lenore  Lukasik-Foss ,  SACHA  executive director

The community review team did a deeper audit of 63 sexual assault cases deemed unfounded that happened from 2010 to 2016.

The report says 70 per cent were "coded incorrectly," while three per cent were undetermined.

The sexual assault unit is comprised of seven overworked officers handling an average of 90 cases each per year, the report says. 

And that caseload is growing, which means resources are stretched thinner. At peak times in 2008, the unit handled 298 cases, Insp. Dave Hennick of the investigative services unit told CBC. In 2016, that was 545 cases. 

Lenore Lukasik-Foss, SACHA executive director, was part of the nine-person community review team. She noticed the lack of resources too.

Sexual assault cases are "nuanced and resource heavy," she said. "What we saw were good detectives getting bogged down."

Those myths, she said, included undermining a victim's story because alcohol was involved, or because victim and perpetrator were already in a relationship.

"All of us were at some point," she said. "All of the folks on the team had moments where it was really difficult to understand what had happened to this woman, this victim."

The issue of police classifying sexual assault complaints as unfounded came to light in 2017, when a Globe and Mail article showed Hamilton police classified 30 per cent of sex assault cases as unfounded. The national average is 19 per cent.

The police services board voted to review the matter, although Hennick says the service has been working on this issue since 2015.

The 62-page report recommends hiring two more officers for the sexual assault unit, which would bring the total to nine. It also recommended some measures that are already happening, including having victim services workers meet with victims before they're interviewed by police.

The review also recommends training to understand victim responses and the neurobiology of trauma, better policies, and a model that takes vulnerable populations into consideration, including people with mental health challenges, people who are street involved, and the Indigenous community.

We believe this report identifies where there are gaps in service and how we can address them.- Police Chief Eric GirtHennick said the service has already implemented better training for every officer. Investigators threw themselves into this review, he said, and wanted it to be "collaborative" and "transparent."

"I believe we came up with a made-in-Hamilton model," he said, and "I'm really proud of that."

"In undertaking this review, we had one end goal – to improve service delivery to victims of sexual assault," he said. "We believe this report identifies where there are gaps in service and how we can address them to deliver the best possible response and care to victims."

Lukasik-Foss said the findings told people who work with victims what they already know — that the system is broken.

Samantha Craggs is a CBC News reporter based in Hamilton, Ont. She has a particular interest in politics and social justice stories, and tweets live from Hamilton city hall. Follow her on Twitter at @SamCraggsCBC, or email her at [email protected]

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A community review of Hamilton sexual assault cases has found 70 per cent of those cleared as \”unfounded\” between 2010 and 2016 were closed incorrectly.

Cases were dismissed without all witnesses being interviewed, or without forensic testing being requested, because a disproportionate weight was given to the accuseds version of events, or a reliance on rape myths, the report reveals.

Unfounded is a code used to close files in policing when investigators do not believe a crime occurred as reported. Its a term that rose to national prominence after an investigative project by the Globe and Mail that showed the high rates that sexual assault cases are dismissed.

That reporting found Hamilton was closing 30 per cent of sexual assault cases as unfounded between 2010 and 2014, above the 19 per cent national average.

In response, Hamilton police announced the Sexual Assault Community Review Team in March 2017, drawing together community experts from the Sexual Assault Centre Hamilton Area (SACHA), the Sexual Assault Domestic Violence Care Centre at McMaster, the Native Womens Centre and a regional Crown attorney. With police, they audited a random sampling of 63 cases, drawn from over 700.

SACHA director Lenore Lukasik-Foss, who participated in the audit, said that the 70 per cent figure is surprising.

\”Certainly I had expected to find situations where (cases were improperly closed) but I dont think I had expectations it would be that high,\” she said.

But she also commended Hamilton police for being completely open and transparent. Unlike other \”unfounded\” reviews, the team was not dealing with redacted documents. They had full access to all reports, interviews and reports.

It was ultimately the video interviews that proved the most telling, with the team members, who worked together to review each case, always agreeing, Lukasik-Foss said.

They saw patterns including overworked officers, who at times despite good intentions missed cues, and others who relied on biases about how a real victim should behave.

They also saw a pattern emerge with the victims — those dismissed were more likely to be young and vulnerable, including people who are street involved, have substance abuse issues or mental illness.

The community review came after a Hamilton police internal review of unfounded sexual assault cases from 2010 to 2014 came to a different conclusion — it says 75 per cent of cases were cleared correctly. Lukasik-Foss said this shows that reviews need to be community-based, not internal.

Part of the issue identified by police in the internal review was limitation of the codes available in the uniform crime reporting (UCR) survey. There have since been changes to UCR codes that includes narrowing when \”unfounded\” is appropriate — it is now only supposed to be used when a police investigation proves an offence did not happen.

\”We set out from the beginning to do the review with the end goal of improving service delivery for victims of sexual assault,\” said Insp. David Hennick, who commended the community partners for their hard work.

They created a \”made-in-Hamilton model\” that built upon the previous gold standard for community sexual assault reviews, known as the Philadelphia Model. The key in Hamilton was having every case reviewed collectively as a team.

Hamilton police really wanted to know how officers were coming to the wrong conclusion and didnt wait for the review to be complete before implementing changes, Hennick said. This included sexual assault detectives undergoing training around neurobiology of trauma and sexual violence in 2015, followed by all front-line officers in the last year.

In September police launched a six-month pilot project created by victims services administrator Susan Double. The pilot includes Victim Services meeting with victims before they meet with a detective from the sexual assault unit.

Victim Services representatives make them aware of resources, counselling, and offers to stay with them for their police interview.

The community team has made five recommendations that Hamilton police say theyre committed to implementing:

Make SACRT review process permanent with the team meeting four times a year to review unfounded cases, and a random sampling of other closed sexual assault cases. This will begin in January.

Hire additional detectives to the sexual assault unit. Police are recommending hiring two new detectives for the sexual assault unit. Hennick said there has been a near doubling of workload for sexual assault detectives in recent years with increased awareness around sexual assault. Two new detectives would bring the unit up to nine members, making each responsible for about 54 cases reported a year.

Provide ongoing and continuous training on the neurobiology of sexual violence and trauma, to avoid myths and unconscious bias about how a victim should behave. This includes not drawing conclusions about how upset a person appears and understanding the impact of trauma on memory — particularly on remembering things in a linear way.

Improve police oversight. This includes changes that only allow the units detective sergeant to close a case and periodic random reviews of interviews.

Based on the advice of front-line experts, Hamilton police will not be contacting victims in already closed cases. However, Hennick said police would review any case on request. Any victims who want a sexual assault case reviewed can contact the sexual assault unit detective sergeant at 905-546-4962.

The report is being presented by Hennick and a members of the Sexual Assault Community Review Team at the Hamilton Police Services Board on Thursday.