According to a 20-month-long investigation by The Globe and Mail into how police handle sexual assault allegations across Canada, an average of 14 per cent of sexual assault allegations were considered “unfounded” over the past five years in Burns Lake.
This means that in 21 of 153 allegations, investigators did not believe that a criminal offence occurred or was attempted in Burns Lake.
In Houston, the five-year average of sexual assault allegations cleared as unfounded was 13 per cent; in Smithers, it was 15 per cent; and in Vanderhoof, it was 11 per cent.
Even though those numbers are lower than the national unfounded rate – 19.39 per cent – the investigation suggests that true unfounded cases, which arise from malicious or mistaken reports, are rare. According to research from North America, the United Kingdom and Australia, only two to eight per cent of complaints are false reports.
The Globe’s findings suggest that police in Canada are closing a disproportionate number of rape cases as unfounded, a phenomenon that distorts the country’s crime statistics since cases dismissed as unfounded are not reported to Statistics Canada.
But according to advocates and scholars who reviewed The Globe’s data, the significance of inaccurate unfounded rates is more than statistical.
“When complaints of sexual assault are dismissed with such frequency, it is a sign of deeper flaws in the investigative process: inadequate training for police; dated interviewing techniques that do not take into account the effect that trauma can have on memory; and the persistence of rape myths among law-enforcement officials.”
The investigation revealed that more than 5000 allegations of sexual assault close as unfounded by Canadian law enforcement every year.
In addition, The Globe’s data show discrepancies in unfounded rates between jurisdictions across Canada – swings from city to city, province to province, regardless of size and demographics – suggesting that complainants of sex assault in some parts of the country are less likely to be believed than in other parts.
While the unfounded sexual assault rate in Vancouver is 13 per cent, Ottawa is at 28 per cent and Saint John, New Brunswick, is at 51 per cent.
To conduct its review, The Globe and Mail requested unfounded data from every police service in the country, which covers more than 1100 jurisdictions. However, not all forces complied with the request. The Globe received data from 873 police jurisdictions, which represent 92 per cent of the population.
Mike Morris, B.C. Minister of Public Safety and Solicitor General, said he is certain that police are committed to public safety and to helping victims of crime.
“We all know that sexual assault can be devastating for victims and their families,” he said. “I can say that from my experience in policing, investigations can be very complex, but I would certainly expect that all police take these kinds of allegations very seriously.”
“We do not interfere with operational decisions and investigations; however, I do know that commanding officers from RCMP divisions across Canada have been directed to review their unfounded sexual assault cases from 2016 to make sure they comply with RCMP policy,” he continued. “They will also be reviewing a sample of historical cases.”
“If the review identify gaps in how sexual assaults are currently investigated, the RCMP will review more cases,” he added.