The Unfounded Files: #MeToo and Its Impact on the RCMP
As the #MeToo movement continues to gain traction across Canada, supporters have continuously called for not only an end to sexual assault victim stigmatization, but also for an improvement in the way that sexual assault incident reports are handled by authorities. In Canada, sexual assault allegations are investigated by local police departments or the RCMP. RCMP statistics indicate an estimated 635,000 incidents of sexual assault occurred in Canada during 2014.
Tip of The Iceberg
Unfortunately, as someone who has been representing survivors of sexual abuse for more than 25 years, I can state without a shadow of a doubt that these reports are just the tip of the iceberg.
I expect most Canadians would be shocked to learn that nearly 90 percent of all sexual assault incidents go unreported. A variety of factors contribute to this:
- First, victims may feel intimidated by longstanding social and cultural attitudes exhibited towards sexual assault victims, and feel that it is safer or “easier” to say nothing about their experience.
- Second, a lack of investigative accountability, victim support and sexual assault education allows many assaulters to “slip through the cracks” unintentionally meaning that even if a report is made, it does not guarantee that an arrest will result. Cases in which an assaulter is determined to have “not violated the law,” or that a crime was “falsely reported” are classified as unfounded.
When a case is determined to be supposedly “unfounded”, it essentially means that the case is closed indefinitely with no further investigation. The RCMP uses the Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Survey definition of unfounded when, “after a police investigation it is concluded that no violation of the law took place or was attempted.”
This creates issues with reporting sexual assault because even if a victim is being truthful while recounting their experience and trauma, an improperly trained police officer might not find the matter worth pursuing any further and dismiss the allegations of sexual assault on the grounds of being “baseless.”
How The #MeToo Movement is Changing Everything
Supporters of the #MeToo movement thus began to argue that when victims do come forward to share their stories, the authorities must stand for (and with) victims in bringing their assaulters to justice. The RCMP has been criticized for a lack of compassion for victims, as well as a lack of understanding on how trauma affects memory and emotional expression. Fortunately, an investigation into the sexual assault reporting practices of Canada’s police force was already well underway.
The Unfounded Reports
A team in Ottawa was created by the RCMP in early 2017 to thoroughly review all sexual assault files that were classified as “unfounded” in 2016 to ensure that the officers involved “followed RCMP operational policy, all viable investigative avenues were pursued, and cases were accurately classified based on available information.”
As the investigation drew to a close in late 2017, the results were more shocking than expected:
- Out of the 10,038 reported sexual assault cases across Canada in 2016, 2,225 were classified as unfounded.
- 1,260 of these cases were found to have been misclassified, while 284 were flagged for further investigation.
The investigation revealed that 1 in 5 sexual assault allegations made in 2016 were classified as “unfounded,” which effectively barred these victims any chance of pursuing legal action against their assaulters with RCMP assistance, and allowed assaulters to essentially walk away from a crime with no long-term consequences.
Results of the Reports
As a result of this investigation, the RCMP review has been expanded to include all sexual assault investigations for 2015, 2016 and 2017, to be completed by the National Headquarters review team. A training curriculum that addresses existing legislation and consent law has also been implemented, which focuses on such things as trauma-informed investigative tools and approaches, education on victim rights and resources, and a bolstering of supervisory oversight and review in sexual assault cases.
This curriculum will also be inclusive of Canada’s vulnerable populations including, but not limited to, Indigenous people, senior citizens, persons with disabilities, sex trade workers, children and youth under 18, and the LGBTQ2+ community, reflecting the diversity of the communities that the RCMP serves.
In addition, the RCMP has created a Best Practices Guide to be used as a reference guide and checklist for investigators to utilize while conducting more comprehensive investigations, meant to compliment current RCMP policies.
With over 25,000 cases to review from 2015-2017, the process of developing a truly comprehensible plan to investigate each sexual assault allegation with the utmost urgency and depth is ongoing, and will likely never end as the number of advocates for sexual assault awareness continues to grow. While it is promising to see a degree of proactivity being taken by the RCMP to educate their forces on how to be more compassionate towards victims of sexual assault, the results of their efforts remain yet to be seen.