In her hugely important Unfounded series, which began appearing in early February in the Globe and Mail, investigative reporter Robyn Doolittle has meticulously documented what front line sexual assault support workers have known for a long time – that there are deep systemic issues with the way in which police across Canada investigate sexual assaults, and that sexual assault statistics, rather than shedding light on the incidence of sexual assault in Canada, can be used to “disappear” these assaults from the public record.
The Unfounded series lends considerable new support for what advocates have been seeking for some time now – the introduction of the gold-standard Philadelphia model to provide transparency and oversight around sexual assault investigations and ultimately to address and correct systemic deficiencies. Not surprisingly, the Philadelphia model also owes its origins to investigative journalism. It was detailed reporting in the Philadelphia Inquirer of the unfounding of serious sexual assault complaints that provided the impetus needed to push the Philadelphia Police Service to change its approach.
The Philadelphia model involves regular meetings between police officials and civilian experts – often front-line sexual assault workers. The team reviews all files classified as “unfounded” as well as other selected files in order to determine whether the classifications were appropriate, or whether further investigation is warranted. In the process, systemic problems are identified and addressed, improving the overall practices of the force. The model has been a success in Philadelphia and has been adopted by a growing number of police services in the United States.
Robyn Doolittle’s Unfounded series has attracted attention from provincial and federal politicians and has led a number of police services to indicate that they will take steps to improve their handling of sexual assault complaints. However, we are concerned that these steps may fall short of implementing the Philadelphia model. At their worst, they may simply be an exercise in semantics, leading to the reclassification of cases that were once unfounded as ones for which there is “insufficient evidence”. Further, we are concerned that privacy law may be asserted as a reason for not moving forward with the Philadelphia model. While the privacy of women who have been sexually assaulted is fundamentally important, it is misleading to suggest that the Philadelphia model would run afoul of privacy laws. The Philadelphia model treats those involved in case reviews as consultants and subjects them to the associated rigorous confidentiality requirements.
Our op-ed, published today in the Globe and Mail raises our concerns about measures that fall short of what is clearly the gold standard. The Philadelphia Model is not a half-measure, it is a game changer – and this is clearly what is needed across Canada.