Quebec launching review of unfounded sex-assault complaints

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The Sûreté du Québec, the police force responsible for most areas outside cities, dismissed 21 per cent of sexual-assault complaints as unfounded over the five-year average ending in 2014 – a rate two points higher than the national average and several times higher than areas with best practices. (FRANCIS VACHON/The Canadian Press)

Quebec has launched a review of sexual-assault complaints dismissed as unfounded by provincial police and has promised an audit of police practices in other cities and towns after a Globe and Mail investigation revealed a high rate of cases are thrown out.

The Sûreté du Québec, the police force responsible for most areas outside cities, dismissed 21 per cent of sexual-assault complaints as unfounded over the five-year average ending in 2014 – a rate two points higher than the national average and several times higher than areas with best practices. The SQ is conducting a review of a large sample of unfounded cases to examine how the determinations were reached, Quebec’s Public Security Minister Martin Coiteux confirmed.

Across the province, investigators deemed 17 per cent of sexual-assault complaints were unfounded, meaning no crime occurred or was attempted. The figure is lower than the national average but still nearly double the rate for other violent crimes.

Mr. Coiteux also said his ministry’s directorate of audit, inspection and investigation will review procedures on sexual assault in the provincial police force and across several municipal forces. “We are sensitive to the treatment of sexual-assault cases and we want to ensure we are following best practices,” Mr. Coiteux said in a statement to The Globe and Mail.

Read more: How police and politicians have responded to The Globe’s Unfounded investigation so far

Advocates for victims of sexual assault maintain external reviews are the only way to ensure reform. So far, Quebec has not committed to submitting police to scrutiny from outside the provincial government or to publishing internal findings.

“We take this very seriously, we want to dig down and find out how those determinations were generated,” said Captain Guy Lapointe, chief spokesman for the SQ. He said he wasn’t sure how many cases the SQ would review and gave no timeline for completion. He said SQ commanders have not decided whether results will be made public.

About 40 forces, including the Ontario Provincial Police, the RCMP and now the SQ, have promised to review more than 10,000 cases since The Globe’s research was published over the past two weeks showing one in five sexual-assault complaints are dismissed by police officers.

The Globe’s research showed a wide variety of rates from region to region in the province and across Canada. In Longueuil, a large suburb of Montreal, police dismissed 9 per cent of sexual assault complaints as unfounded while in Abitibi in northwestern Quebec, the rate was 27 per cent. In Montreal the rate was 18 per cent.

Outside Quebec, British Columbia, a province that has reformed its approach to sexual assault, has a rate of 11 per cent. Philadelphia, a city held up by advocates as a model, has a rate of 4 per cent.

Statistics Canada stopped tracking unfounded cases 14 years ago, so The Globe sent freedom of information requests for statistics from every Canadian police force. Over 20 months, the newspaper received data from 870 police jurisdictions covering 92 per cent of the Canadian population.

Once an accusation is closed using the unfounded code, it is no longer considered valid. The case is not reported to Statistics Canada and is not reflected in local or national crime tracking. The federal agency is in talks with police forces about collecting and publishing the data once again.

Fallout from The Globe investigation revealed some confusion even among justice system officials about how unfounded cases are classified.

Quebec is one of a few provinces along with British Columbia where police bring their completed investigation files to prosecutors who then decide on laying charges. Initially, Mr. Coiteux pointed to the system to explain Quebec’s unfounded rate after the Globe investigation was published.

However, police usually determine cases are “unfounded” long before the formal charge approval process kicks in. Quebec prosecutors provided some counsel in the majority of unfounded cases – a fact stressed repeatedly by law enforcement officials in the province.

But police ultimately decide whether cases are entered as unfounded in the crime database – a distinction reinforced Thursday by provincial prosecutors. “It’s a police administrative decision to classify a case as unfounded,” said Jean-Pascal Boucher, a spokesman for the provincial prosecutors’ office. “We can and do provide counsel.”

In Thursday’s statement, Mr. Coiteux said “in cases determined to be unfounded, it is important to specify some cases are submitted [to prosecutors], others are the subject of consultation with a prosecutor and others are closed by police officers under quality control and a rigorous framework.”

Mr. Coiteux also pointed to a federal-provincial-territorial working group examining ways to improve police practices in sexual-assault cases. “We take it seriously but The Globe’s report shows how it is a challenge for us all,” he said.

Have you reported a sexual assault to the police? If you would be willing to share your experience with The Globe and Mail, please email robyndoolittle@globeandmail.com

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