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Calgary police tackling unfounded sexual assault cases with 'Philadelphia Model'

Calgary case review committee will take a second look at cases that have been closed as unfounded

Calgary police are making moves to tackle unfounded sexual assault cases.

Metro File Photo

Calgary police are making moves to tackle unfounded sexual assault cases.

Sexual assault cases deemed unfounded by Calgary police will now have a second set of eyes evaluate the case before the case is officially closed. 

On Thursday, Calgary Police Service announced they would be adopting an approach first used in Philadelphia 17 years ago. The method reviews unfounded sexual assault cases at least three times a year by a Case Review Committee. 

Danielle Aubry, CEO Calgary Communities Against Sexual Abuse (CCASA) and Case Review Committee member said this is a big step for Calgary.

“The reality is that this brings a different level of accountability for the police that we’ve never had before. Timing is everything and that is why I’m extremely happy the CPS is taking this leadership role,” she said. “It’s a big step and it’s a different way of doing things, so the fact that Calgary is the first big centre in Canada to do this, I’m quite proud of that.” 

This comes after a Globe and Mail investigative piece uncovering that many Canadian police agencies were closing sexual assault cases as unfounded at a higher rate than academic research advises.

Danielle Aubry, CEO Calgary Communities Against Sexual Abuse (CCASA) and Staff Sgt. Bruce Walker of the Calgary Police Service announcing CPS would be adopting an approach first used in Philadelphia 17 years ago. The method reviews unfounded sexual assault cases at least three times a year by a Case Review Committee.

Lucie Edwardson / Metro

Danielle Aubry, CEO Calgary Communities Against Sexual Abuse (CCASA) and Staff Sgt. Bruce Walker of the Calgary Police Service announcing CPS would be adopting an approach first used in Philadelphia 17 years ago. The method reviews unfounded sexual assault cases at least three times a year by a Case Review Committee.

In Calgary, the unfounded sexual assault rate was approximately 10 per cent, or 62 cases, every year. 

When this news came to light, police launched their own review of cases, which actually changed the status of 48 files. One case was re-opened for further investigation and 47 were reclassified from unfounded to "open, inactive," which they say means an offence may have happened, but they need more evidence.

This investigation also brought up areas where police can improve. Officers will be given better training on dealing with sexual assault trauma and are designating an officer as a Sexual Offence Coordinator to make sure all sexual offences are being investigated properly. 

“Calgary’s unfounded rate was lower than average, both nationally and provincially,” said Staff Sergeant Bruce Walker with the Calgary Police Service Sex Crimes Unit, in a prepared release. “But there are still other police agencies that are doing better than us. We felt it was important to learn from their successes and see what we can do even better here.”

In a release, police said sexual assault investigations should only be classified as unfounded when investigators find that no assault happened, or was attempted and that no other criminal offence went down at the reported time and place.

This Case Review Committee will look at all new sexual offence cases, including assault and other sexual crimes, that police classify as unfounded. Their role is to offer advice on how the investigation can be improved, identify training opportunities for officers and give any suggestions on how police policies and procedures can be better. 

Dr. Sarah MacDonald, forensic Psycholigist at the Sheldon Kennedy Child Advocacy Centre and committee member said at the centre they see 128 new cases of child abuse each month. 

"Of those, 68 per cent are serious sexual abuse," she said. "Sometimes when we think about sexual assault we think of adults, but this is very much a big problem for our teenagers and our youth and it has severe impacts."

MacDonald said having a second set of eyes on unfounded cases is very important. 

"A thorough investigation is always conducted but there is room for error, whether it's clerical or a system error, so that's why all of us are coming together as experts to review all the files," she said. 

Committee members also includes a staff member from Alberta Status of Women ministry.

Minister Stephanie McLean said she thanks CPS for their leadership in adopting the model and including her ministry at the table.

"We know that sexual violence is a gendered crime. The vast majority of survivors of sexual violence are women, and I hope this helps them feel safe to come forward to tell their story," she said "I want every survivor to know we believe them, and they deserve to be treated fairly and with respect."

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