Balancing Transparency and Accountability with Privacy in Improving the Police Handling of Sexual Assaults

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

A new paper by uOttawa researchers Amy Conroy and myself examines the balance between transparency and privacy in the review of police handling of sexual assault cases. The paper considers whether a successful U.S. model for the review of sexual assault cases that involves civilian experts such as front line sexual assault victim advocates could be implemented in Ontario, or whether the province’s public sector privacy legislation would prevent its adoption. We conclude that Ontario’s privacy legislation is sufficiently flexible to allow for this innovative model. This conclusion is important not just in this context, but in other areas – such as domestic violence, for example – where external expertise could improve the police response to crimes where pervasive societal biases and stereotypes can create systemic dysfunction.

The development and adoption of the innovated model in the U.S. was prompted by investigative journalism that revealed significant problems with how police in Philadelphia were dealing with sexual assault complaints. The Philadelphia Police Department introduced an innovative program designed to provide a regular and systematic review of how sexual assault complaints were handled by police. This model directly involves front-line sexual assault victim advocates working with police in systematic reviews of sexual assault records, with a particular focus on ‘unfounded’ cases. This highly specialized review committee works with police to identify cases recorded as unfounded that should be reopened and investigated. They also identify problems with the police handling of cases and work to find solutions. The model is considered to be highly successful and it has been adopted in other U.S. cities.

Problems with police handling of sexual assault complaints are not unique to the U.S. For example, a recent report by University of Ottawa Professor Holly Johnson examined the experience of women who report crimes of sexual violence in Ottawa. Her study was part of an initiative by the Ottawa Police Service to improve their response to such crimes. One of the issues highlighted in this report was the practice of police recording some complaints as “unfounded” – which leads to no further action being taken to investigate the allegations. Johnson’s study and others have raised concerns that the unfounding of complaints may be influenced by stereotypes, as well as biased and discriminatory attitudes.

Because the Philadelphia model requires civilians to work with police to review specific case files, there is a concern that public sector privacy legislation might not allow such an approach in Canada. Yet such a view misinterprets the role of the review panel. Clearly, under access to information laws, privacy principles would prevent the release of the highly confidential details of police case files to third parties. But the Philadelphia model is not premised on access to information; it is a form of civilian review board for which there is plenty of precedent in Canada, and which would have its own privacy-protective mechanisms in place. In our paper we argue that a mischaracterization of the nature of the model limits transparency and accountability in the name of misplaced privacy considerations. This argument builds upon our earlier Geothink- funded work on achieving a balance between transparency and privacy.

The adoption of the Philadelphia model by police forces in cities such as Ottawa should be seriously considered. The model is designed to identify problems in specific cases but also to work towards rectifying systemic problems. It could go a long way to helping meet the Ontario government’s goals set out in its Action Plan to Stop Sexual Violence and Harassment. While privacy remains an important value, it should not be used as an excuse to limit the adoption of innovative new models for transparency and accountability.
Designed by Rachel Gold.