Transcript - Sexual Assault Reporting and Investigation
Moderator: Okay, I’m sorry, we don’t have a lot of time for pauses. We have so many wonderful people here, and I’m sure we’re going to want to hear as much as they have to share with us. It’s, it’s quite an exciting day to have all these people here. And both people at the front and in the room taking home ideas and working, continuing your valuable work on these issues.
Our panel today is on sexual assault reporting and investigation, which is very timely given the attention that these issues have been receiving. We will be talking about barriers to reporting, available supports for survivors and promising practices related to reporting and police investigations. And I really don’t want to take away from time from the panelists today. So I’m going to leave it to you to read all of the amazing things that they’ve done that’s described in their bios in the package you’ve received. And just really briefly introduce the members of the panel.
We have Holly Johnson, a professor from the Faculty of Criminology at the University of Ottawa and we’re going to go in order from right, my right towards me and that’s the order on your agenda as well. We have Jennifer Richard , the Director of Community Development, from the Fredericton Sexual Assault Centre. Next to her is Chief Shawn Devine, the Chief of the North Bay Police Service. And then, we have two members from the Philadelphia model that we’ve all heard so much about, and we’re very excited and grateful that they were able to come here. We have Terry Fromson, the Managing Attorney of the Women’s Law Project in Philadelphia, and Lieutenant Thomas McDevitt from, Retired Lieutenant from the Special Victims Unit at the Philadelphia Police Service.
So, we’re going to start with each panelist speaking for approximately 10 minutes and then we will have some time for questions at the end.
Okay, so I won’t dwell on this because the Minister has alluded to it and so did Kathy, but we know that the justice system has largely been a failure for women who are sexually assaulted, that despite decades of law reform and some very, very important changes to law and procedure, the charging rate has not improved and nor has the conviction rate for women and we know from the very timely and very comprehensive investigative reporting by the Globe and Mail that this first line, which is recorded by the police, are, omits a very large number and that varies tremendous across the country.
This is Ontario for, which is where I work. And more specifically, in Ottawa, charges were laid in 19% of cases over a five-year period and 38% were deemed to be unfounded and 32% were founded, not solved, and 10% were dismissed for other discretionary reasons or the complainant’s request. So under some encouragement, shall we say, from the local community in 2013, the Ottawa Police Service began examining unfounded cases more carefully and in that year, sexual assaults quoted as unfounded dropped by half while the unfounded, sorry, the founded not solved rate rose to 47%.
The percentage resulting in charges did not change. And The Globe and Mail story found that in 2014, that unfounded dropped to 12%, and according to the OPS, it’s now at 8%. And while accurate recording of data is critical to addressing this problem, without real change on the ground, that you know, we, it’s, statistics can be used to meet an objective and we don’t know without oversight whether there’s been any change on the ground.
The Ottawa Police, some years ago, started a very important initiative to improve their response to crimes of violence against women, and they started an advisory committee which is still continuing to this day, and I’ve been able to be a part of that committee and as part of our work, we conducted a small survey of women in Ottawa who had reported crimes of violence to the police, and 219 women came forward. And only 36% of them had reported a sexual assault, which is not surprising to me, given that it’s a very, very unreported crime, as we know.
So we collected some statistical and some qualitative data, and because the numbers are quite low for sexual, I focus more on the women’s voices and what the apprehensions and contradictions have been for them as they came forward to report sexual violence. So first of all, just an overview as a few statistics based on small numbers about how the women, about their impressions of the first officer and the investigator.
And we can see that the percentages are low who gave favourable ratings about being, feeling comfortable talking with the officer, being believed, feeling the officer was considerate of her feelings and opinions, and an overall good or satisfactory rating, and then we had a couple of extra questions about investigators, about explaining the process and answering questions. And we can see that it’s below 50%, or 50% or below for all of them, and it’s somewhat higher for investigators.
So let’s start with why do women report? We know about why they don’t report. We had some pretty good comprehensive information about that, about their fear of the justice system, about their shame and embarrassment and sometimes the fear of the offender. What happens to women when they actually do report? Well, most of them report to protect other women, or they want the guy held accountable and told that his actions are wrong. They want validation for what has happened to them.
So to illustrate mixed feelings, and mixed outcomes, this is a quotation from a university student assaulted by an acquaintance at age 18 who was, we asked him [sic] about were you, how did you feel about involving the police and this woman was, really wanted the police to be involved, and the first officer was non-judgemental and told her "it would be okay, it’s okay to feel scared and everything would be alright". He offered to call a support person, offered to get medical assistance and the woman didn’t push for charges to be laid, fearing her community would judge her, and that her attacker would "get her into, get into trouble".
However, the implication of her decision not to pursue a prosecution was that she fabricated the assault. And here is her narrative: "I was so afraid of my attacker would tell people how the entire ordeal would be painted to make me look like a liar, that I let this issue pass without pressing charges. Directly following the incident, his friends began Facebook inbox messaging me, telling me I was a liar and how could I accuse their innocent friend of such a heinous crime. I was young, frightened and felt trapped. I wish the police could have given me some tools to avoid this mental coercion."
She goes on to say "Looking back, I wish he had some consequences for what he did to me. I suffered major emotional and psychological trauma from the incident and he walked away as if it never happened. Furthermore, he turned around and tarnished my reputation among our mutual friends by telling everyone I had lied about the whole thing. He continued to frequent the residence I lived in for the next several months and continues to make me fear running into him. I wish the decision to charge him had been out of my hands so I wouldn’t have had to fear the judgement from my community, which is why I did not end up pressing charges because I do feel he deserved the charges."
And so she’s quite conflicted about do I report and do I put myself out there? And now, she’s seemed to be a liar. Now, in this report, or in this analysis, what we found is three major themes emerging. And the first one you’re not going to be surprised to learn was disbelief and skepticism. And so the initial response is really critical for establishing trust and helping the woman define assault as either a crime or something for which she’s responsible and for herself is either deserving of the protection of the law or is blameworthy.
And there are several examples where the police dismissed the women’s claim outright and judged her credibility on the basis of rape myths and a narrow definition of so-called real rape. So this woman describes her treatment by the officer who interviewed her as traumatizing. And a prior sexual assault in another city had resulted in a conviction. She was optimistic police would treat her fairly and with respect, but her faith in the police was shattered when he accused her of exaggerating, told her he used the word rape too liberally and a friend and a bystander called numerous times before police responded and they reluctantly interviewed the assailant and told her he interpreted my body language wrong and thought he was "laying the smooth moves".
And I’ve been given a two-minute warning. Uh-oh. (laughter)
Okay, so let me just, we know about disbelief and skepticism, and there are a number of examples there. The effects of trauma. We’re only just starting to understand and we’re going to hear quite a lot about the effects of trauma later on and what it does to the brain, and how cumulative traumas from, left over from childhood sexual abuse can really have an effect, and police have to respond to that and understand that a past complaint of sexual assault doesn’t then contribute to believe this woman is fabricating this time.
This is just a story about, a narrative from a woman who had flashbacks, had a very supportive police officer that was unable to actually proceed because of past trauma.
The third theme we found was procedural justice and, of course, disbelief and effects of trauma all converge on procedural justice, but there are some, some easy to fix and some not so easy to fix things that can be done to meet procedural justice, which is all feeling valued and respected and having some basic courtesies, such as demanding details of the assault at the front desk, being left alone with male officers, etc., no validation for the wrongfulness of the act.
Just to end then quickly on what’s a positive response, there, here’s an example of where procedural justice can really be important for helping women prepare for a trial. He got somebody to cover at the front desk for him, he took me and a friend I brought along to another room so there would be privacy. He got me Kleenex and water and listened and made notes, let me take the other sheet of paper home. I was referred to a detective. She continues to be absolutely amazing.
So this was a woman who was sexually assaulted by her father. There were seven charges laid. There was a conviction in five, so she had validation through the court process. When asked whether she would report similar crimes in the future, she said I don’t think. I was in court for three years, and it was traumatizing and I had to take time off work. And so the good reaction or response from the police can actually be outdone by a lengthy grueling court process.
And my time is up. Thank you.
Moderator: Thank you very much, Holly. Next we have Jennifer Richard, talking a bit about the wonderful work that they’ve done and built up and supporting survivors.
Jennifer Richard: Hi there. So I am going to talk a little bit about our centre and our approach to sexual violence and then talk a little bit about training that we developed, trauma informed police training that we have piloted last year, and a little bit about our relationship with the police, which I suspect is probably fairly similar to a lot of sexual assault centres in our history relating to the police. So just a little snapshot of our, the Fredericton Sexual Assault Centre, which I will now only refer to as FSAC cause it’s a lot easier.
So Fredericton has the dubious distinction of being one of the top municipalities in terms of reported sexual assaults. We tend to fight for first place with St. John. And New Brunswick is also one of the – as The Globe and Mail article came out – is at the top also for unfounded cases. So New Brunswick is leading the pack once again. So Fredericton is kind of a little bit like a mini Ottawa. We have, it is a pretty diverse community. We have two universities, we have three indigenous communities that surround the municipality. We have a growing immigrant population and we also have, like most cities in New Brunswick, a Francophone and Anglophone population.
And the main employer in Fredericton is either the university or, or government. And so, again like the, like the article The Globe and Mail came out, there’s definitely some issues in New Brunswick. St. John is, is number for unfounded, unfounded cases. Fredericton was only 16%, which was great, but our charging rates in Fredericton are about 10%, which means 90% of the people who come forward to report sexual assault, nothing happens.
So that’s, there’s definitely some interesting – Holly, you should just come into New Brunswick and do a study, that would be fantastic. So the centre, we’ve been around for about 40 years, and like most sexual assault centres in the country, really was a grassroots movement as a response to violence against women. We are the only centre in New Brunswick. We do provide local services to Fredericton, but we provide a lot of other mentoring, supporting, resources to the whole province.
So things like community development, we do a lot of training throughout the province. We also work with the provincial government to, to help them develop policies and, and work with the different departments within government. We are a small centre. We have four full-time permanent staff. We have two temporary project staff, three part-time counsellors. Really important to know that probably, like some other centres, we don’t have any core funding. We are a make it work type of organization. We rely mostly on a lot of project funding. We do have an ongoing relationship with the province of New Brunswick, but it is, you know, in three-year snippets. And we also rely on United Way funding and, and of course, fundraising.
But for our direct services like individual counselling, our support line, there really isn’t any full funding for that, which is important to know because this issue is something that is coming out more and more, so the increase in our services has been massive and, and it is hard to actually meet those, meet those needs.
So in terms of our response, we are pretty well respected in the province. We have been there for 40 years. Our executive director has been in her position for about 30 years, so we’re, we have some really strong relationships. And so in, in 2012, we started to develop a sexual assault response team, which officially launched in 2015. It took a while to develop those relationships and actually get buy-in from the head people in all of the different agencies that we were working with.
So the team is made up of, obviously ourselves, the police – we have municipal and RCMP in the area – so with the Fredericton police force and the RCMP, victim services, the campuses, domestic violence outreach workers, and the sexual assault nurse examiners.
And so we meet every two months to talk about emerging issues to troubleshoot things that are happening, and talking about successes is actually really important, as well as challenges. And it’s a good way for us to bring some of the issues that we hear about through our counselling program at our support line up to the frontline workers and the agencies that are actually responding to those.
So last year, we started – or a couple of years ago actually – we received funding from Status of Women Canada to develop trauma informed police training, which was called Improving outcomes trauma informed sexual assault response training for police. So this was, this was an initiative with our Sexual Assault response team, as well as the Atlantic Network of Sexual Assault Centres who would help give us input with this as well.
So we worked with the Fredericton Police Force to develop those agenda topics, discuss best practices. And so the ultimate objective which I will read because it is lengthy, is to strengthen to capacity of law enforcement to provide trauma informed sexual violence specific, sexual violence specific is also important, and victim centred police response and investigation to adult sexual assault cases that reflect a deepened understanding of the impact of investigational practices on traumatized victims of sexual assault while maintaining balanced and objective police investigations within the context of the criminal justice system.
So just a little objective. We had one day to do it, so it was challenging. So we delivered the pilot to a group in the spring of 2016 to the Fredericton Police Force, so we had about, our initial group was small, about eight, about eight officers. So like I said, the training was delivered in one day. The agenda included things like myths and misconceptions, victims’ perspective in reporting sexual assault, understanding the neurobiology of trauma and trauma informed sexual assault police response, the initial response and victim interviewing and talking about things like rethinking resistance and what that looks like, not necessarily physical resistance, but what are the other things that indicate resistance?
And then report writing, which was actually a very interesting piece that we, we use a lot of information from the Avalon Centre in Halifax about how powerful that report writing and the words that you choose can really have consequences down the road. We did provide it again. We offered it to the province. The demand, the need, the excitement about this was, far exceeded our expectations. So that group, we had about 80 people.
It was mostly officers, but there was also people from victims services and other agencies in the province. We were really careful to take an approach that wasn’t critical but really about exchanging knowledge with the officers because as people from the Sexual Assault Centre, we weren’t going to go in and say you’re doing things wrong. This is how you should be doing it, because we knew that wasn’t going to go over very well. So we really tried to say this is what the best practices are. Maybe you could think about that.
So we did evaluate it, and of course, it was evaluated well. There were really good outcomes that we found from that . There were a couple of challenges I wanted to mention through this process. One day was nowhere near enough time to do this type of training. You need to build trust. The issue of false reports is still a very contentious issue. We, it was difficult to come to an agreement. We still have a lot of work with advocacy and with police to really have a good understanding of what the police realities are in terms of false reports, but also what are the real realities of false reports. (laughter) And actually being able to talk about this in a really safe way.
So we actually avoided, we just decided we have a day, we’re not going to talk about that cause we may get way off topic. The other thing that we met some resistance was bringing the idea of suspect focused investigations to their practice. Still a little uncomfortable with that. And it really is related to a culture of suspicion, I believe, that exists within not only policing, but within the whole criminal justice system.
So just to wrap up quickly about our relationship with the police, it hasn’t always been great, but I would say in the last 10 years, there’s been a huge shift of us working not only with the policing institution, but with even larger institutions in our province. There is a lot more visibility of sexual violence in the media, and so that really has contributed to people now coming to us and saying we want to work with you. We want to use your expertise.
We, we’re lucky right now to have a really excellent Chief in Fredericton, Leanne Fitch. She’s been really supportive of the work and of the training itself that we developed, and she has committed to furthering, obviously it was, it was a project so we don’t really have any money anymore, but she really wants to bring this training to all of her officers.
And so New Brunswick departments will be reviewing the cases through the Department of Justice and Public Safety and Chief Fitch has asked us to, to be part of that process, which is really fantastic, but that’s not the case in all other municipalities in New Brunswick. And our, our goal is really to develop a more strategic approach to improving police response. Looking at training but also looking at policies and procedures and practices. And like the Minister said, we are going to be developing a similar training for Crowns and judges that we’ll be doing over the next three years, which is really exciting.
And so we do recognize that there are many issues in the justice system, and it can sometimes be really difficult as a sexual assault centre to feel like we’re making any progress when we hear about some of the cases that we’ve heard recently in Halifax and Newfoundland, but it’s also that the increase in demand can also be daunting and overwhelming for these centres. But we have been here for 40 years, and I suspect we’ll be here for another 40.
So thank you.
Moderator: Wonderful, thanks very much, Jen. That’s a really important perspective to bring to this conversation.
Next we have Chief Shawn Devine.
Shawn Devine: Good morning. So I’ve been asked as the, as the only Canadian police officer, I’m not sure if I’m the only Canadian peace officer in the room, but I’m the only Canadian police officer on the panel, so I’ve been asked if I would just give a brief overview of, of the circumstances if someone came forward to the police to, and how an investigation would be started.
So I do have to throw a caveat in. I’m from North Bay, not Thunder Bay. North is three hours west of Ottawa, we’re three hours north of Toronto, we’re not Thunder Bay. We’re a small community, we police about 53,000 people, plus we do a contract policing outside, so total population about 58,000 people. Urban community, people that come into our city brings our population that we deal with to about 68. We have 94 sworn members, about 25 special constables and about 25 to 30 civilian members. So we are a small organization.
So what I’m going to speak of here is how we do it. I certainly don’t speak for any other police service, but, and again, this is best case scenario and I even have to say this is best case scenario for North Bay, but I struggle with sometimes how it’s done in our organization.
So different paths towards reporting to the police. Many cases come in through 911 or victim initiated. We often attend disturbance calls where a sexual assault may have occurred, but may have been called in by a neighbour. We often are called to attend our local hospital where someone has attended and been encouraged by hospital staff to, to report to the police, and through other investigation which would include a historical investigation and which somebody has come forward and then the victim has been identified.
The first order of business should be the, the well-being of the victim, both physically and mentally. In my career, 29 years ago, oftentimes we were so busy and interested in getting disclosure that we often didn’t put into account the trauma that these victims have possibly gone through. So that is hopefully training. Changing, pardon me.
If medical treatment is required, then the, the victim should be taken to our local hospital. Following that, scene security would be the next order of business with regards to forensic examination. In our community, we are very fortunate to have a good working relationship with our local hospital and we have SAN nurses, so Sexual Assault Nurses, in which if a sexual assault kit is performed, it’s performed by a trained medical professional. Again, in 29 years, I remember going as a young officer with an ident officer and standing at an examining room as the nurse passed out pieces of evidence and we wrote on them, which again, when I look at it in retrospect, was probably a terrible experience for the victims.
So our work with the, with the SAN nurses, we also have a room at our local hospital. We call it a soft room. It really is just a room that provides a little bit of comfort for the victim so that they’re not sitting out in the, the main area of the hospital. It is equipped with a video statement, so while we are waiting for doctors or nurses that we can start to gather information at the, at the hospital.
The next step would be obtaining disclosure from the victim. And again, whether we do that at police headquarters, all of our statements are recorded with regards to sexual violence. Everything gets recorded on DVD. Once we obtain the statement or disclosure from the victim, victim safety should be the next step, ensuring that the victim leaves the police station or the hospital facility with the, with some form of, or belief that there is a safety plan.
I have to be honest, in often cases, we hand them a blue card, which offers sexual assault support through them calling a number. So I definitely think that is an area where we can, we can improve.
We would then move on to investigation of witnesses in order to gain either corroboration or other witnesses. Depending on the content of the disclosure, the case may focus first to the offender. So if the case or the disclosure that’s presented reaches a threshold that we believe that public safety is involved, that subject may be arrested before we go on with the investigation, but again, that has to be determined by the nature of the disclosure.
We move on to the investigation and looking at the suspect. The threshold for police across Canada, and again, every jurisdiction has its own versions and case law, but in Canada, or sorry, pardon me, in Ontario it is, police have to believe, have reasonable grounds that an offense has been committed. That is our threshold. The next move after it goes from the police is to the Crown’s office, where they have different benchmarks or tests that they have to perform, but for us, a police officer should simply believe that an offence has been taken.
Lots of conversations can float into that as how much discretion police officers should have. Sometimes that is extended with the experience of a police officer, but truly if there is reasonable grounds to believe that an offense has been committed, then the court, the matter can go forward to court.
Arrest, after arrest or if arrest is made in the situation, what we have to do is ensure that attendance at a court, ensure public safety and ensure that the attention is required to maintain public confidence. That’s, that’s actually now is a very high threshold that we have to, to meet. And if we do achieve that, then it goes to a bail hearing in which a bail hearing is held and a justice of the peace also has, attest that they will perform. And in often cases, all but the most serious cases, most offenders will be released on bail.
The, in our organization, we have about 60% of our 94 officers that are trained in sexual assault. All of our supervisors are trained in, on sexual assault and cases that come in after they’re investigated have to go through a, a check by supervisors. The, I will have to say that as far as, I just happened to have a look at the information with regards to the training that goes on with sexual assault, that nothing in that training identifies any investigation or any, the impact of trauma, which I think is something that we really have to look at, and I would be, I would be willing to approach the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police in saying that the Ontario Police College, that that is a factor that should be incorporated into investigations.
I’ll just quickly go through where the North Bay Police Services in our response to what’s been going on. I’d have to say that we very much like our partners to the east of us. In June of 2016, North Bay was identified through Maclean’s magazine article as the fifth most likely place in Canada to be sexually assaulted. That was based on some figures from 2014.
At that point, I, myself and my deputy, decided that we needed to do something. We weren’t going to sit and argue figures. We decided to take action. I have had the pleasure and privilege of sitting on our local sexual assault committee, which is called the Amelia Rising Centre. And through my experience with that and the great people that work there, we started looking at the Philadelphia model probably last June. We are not actively right now doing the Philadelphia model, but we are definitely researching and are sitting at the table with Brenda Quenneville from our sexual assault centre and with our local Crown attorney to, to make changes.
I truly believe that if we intend to gain trust with the people that we serve, that we have to be transparent in our actions. I would rather be at the table and struggle over making some of these changes with our partners than, than arguing about them. So I think there’s real hope with what our friends have done in Philadelphia and I will be encouraging with my other partners at the Ontario Associations of Chiefs of Police to not focus so much on these numbers as far as wat we’re saying we’re classifying things. I think we need to do an over, a better overall job and that is also working with education, with assistance groups and with the courts to make, to make it a better system.
Moderator: Thank you very much, and apologies for the Thunder Bay reference. (laughter) I need to get up north so that it’ll sink into my head, the names, name differences.
Next we have Terry Fromson.
Terry Fromson: Good morning. I appreciate the opportunity to be here with you today and to learn from you. I already have learned quit a bit this morning that I think will be helpful for us in Philadelphia, United States. I have been reading the press that you’ve also faced recently about the high unfounded rates and I can relate very well to the shock of the news. It’s not dissimilar to what happened in Philadelphia in 1999 when we all woke up one morning to the Philadelphia Inquirer telling us that the Philadelphia Police Department had placed one third of the rape complaints in a non-criminal code. They called it 2701 investigation of person. And these were all cases that received very little attention from the police department. They were barely investigated and there was no follow-through with the victims.
We were shocked. We thought we were doing it right in Philadelphia. The Woman’s Law project was not working directly with the police at that point, but we were aware of the reforms that had been made that we had a, one of the first rape crisis centres in the nation, that we had dedicated units in both our police department and our prosecutors office that were focused on sexual violence, that Pennsylvania had done a really good job reforming our state rape laws. The, they removed all of those burdens that are used to test women’s veracity historically in rape law.
And yet, suddenly, we’re informed that for decades, cases had either been put in this investigation a person category, essentially been most to the system because there were at times during those decades very high unfounded rates in Philadelphia. So as we delved into the situation, we of course learned that bias was clearly one of the issues. You know, this was 1999. Trauma informed investigation were not discussed. Police were trained to interrogate and there was a lot of prejudging of victims as not worthy of belief, as well as pressure as police departments have to improve their statistics and their clearance rate. Supervision could have been improved.
We also came to a realization that the FBI’s uniform crime reporting definition of rape was likely influencing and narrowing the police perspective on what real rape was. That definition dated back to 1929. It was carnal knowledge of females forcibly and against their will. So it was leaving out all of the conduct that we viewed as rape. It excluded oral, anal, object penetration, it excluded male victims, it excluded anything but forceful penetration. So as we talked to the police, we realized that we were just talking about different things that this had to be influencing what was going on there.
We also, as the longer we worked with the police, realized how difficult this job was. You know, the conditions, the lack of resources, working with women who had experienced sexual violence has to have an effect on you. And so we began to realize that likely vicarious trauma was going on and that this was a desensitizing problem for the police.
Our initial response was to meet with the Philadelphia Police Department Commissioner and make a few demands. We demanded, first of all, that he reinvestigate all of the cases that had been put into this non-crime code for the statute of limitations at that point, which was five years. We asked our city council to hold hearings, which they did, and we testified and the brought the department back repeatedly over the next maybe year, year and a half to update what was going on.
We ourselves received calls from victims and tried to intervene and the news coverage continued. And I have to give credit to reporters because we would not know about these problems if it weren’t for investigative reporters. It wasn’t just Philadelphia, it’s not just Canada. Once the Philadelphia story came out, we were getting calls from reporters all over the country and you know, really understood that for us, it was a national problem. Obviously, it’s more than a national problem.
Reforms followed. The Commissioner reorganized the Sex Crimes Unit, he brought in more detectives, he improved supervision, case determinations had to be reviewed by a supervisor and approved. He eliminated this investigation code. He did reinvestigate these cases, and to his surprise, of over 3,000 complaints that were reviewed – and this was an internal audit, I just want to distinguish as an external audit and this was internal – he had brought in 45 detectives to review these cases. Of the 3,000 or so, they determined that 681 should have been felony rapes, that over 1,000 should have been other sex crimes and another about 300 should have been other crimes. And they did what they could to reinvestigate those complaints.
And it was at that point that the Police Commissioner turned to us, the Women’s Law Project and said we want the women’s groups to come in here and look at these files. We’ve lost the public’s confidence. We need someone else to come in here. So that was the beginning of the audit, and before I get into the details or go through the nitty-gritty, I just want to make a couple of points. Leadership is really important to make this an effective process. I mean, we were fortunate that our Commissioner came up with this and extended the invitation. It doesn’t have to arise out of the leadership of the police department, but the leadership needs to be on board. It needs to really lead the department in engaging in a process like this.
In addition, the process is completely confidential. We go in there agreeing that we are not taking anything out. we take no notes out with us. We don’t talk to anyone. Nothing is divulged. This is an internal process between advocacy groups and the police department to work together to improve the system. And it has facilitated what has become a trusting relationship between us. We don’t go in saying we’re going to get you, you know. This is not a gotcha. We’re not going to find ah, you did this wrong. It’s not adversarial. It can be uncomfortable, especially in those couple of first years. We’ve been doing this since 2000 and we are going into our 17th year this spring.
And we don’t approach it as if, you know, everyone’s doing a bad job. We know there are really good investigators and police personnel who are doing a really good job. So having said that, each year, we go in, hopefully in the spring and there’s four groups. There’s the Women’s Law Project, there’s our Rape Crisis Centre and there two organizations that focus on child victims that are involved. We review about 400 cases from the previous year. We schedule about four days to come in hopefully sequentially. The police department collects the files in advance, boxes them up for us.
It includes all unfounded files, and random sampling of other files so we can see the full range of the cases. We can’t do the 6,000 cases that come into that unit every year. They give us a conference room. I bring the uniform crime reporting rules, I bring the Philadelphia classification system, I bring the sex crimes laws and we gather around the table and we start going through the files.
We mark up little post-its which have grown bigger now that they make bigger post-its these days, with any questions, comments, concerns that we have about any particular files. And then we put them aside and after we complete all of the files, we meet with the Captain of the unit and the supervisors for each shift and we just go through all of those files. And we find problems, we always find problems. We always have questions. You know, it’s gotten better, it’s not perfect and it’s important for our eyes to be on it and to have these conversations every year.
We look at a couple of major issues. Was the investigation thorough? It’s clear to us that thoroughness was not happening and so we examine the files very clearly, were all the witnesses interviewed? Was all the evidence collected? Was it processed? Did the results come back and did someone look at them before they made a decision on a file? Was there bias? Were there victim-blaming questions asked of the victim? Did the investigator’s comments reflect more of a concern for the accused than for the victim? Did they express doubt in the victim’s voracity? Was she accused of lying? Did they use open-ended questions or did they use interrogation techniques?
If there was a recantation, was it coerced by the accused? Was it due to some treatment by the officers? We still care very much about classification because classification led to non-investigation. So we look at all those decisions. Was what it called when it came in? What did it change through the investigation? Was there an arrest? If it was unfounded, were all the criteria for unfounding met? If it was exceptionally cleared, were all those criteria met?
And then, and then, we ha-, you know, we have our feedback session. We have conversations. We raise our questions. Sometimes, there are answers. Sometimes, it’s really just a question that can be answered. Sometimes, you know, we want more done. We don’t understand why it wasn’t done. We debate these things. You know, sometimes there’s agreement on the other side, sometimes there’s not. At the end of the day, you know, we don’t have any control what happens after we walk out the door and we have to assume, you know, good faith on both sides here that something will be done.
We know that they leave the room with files, with our notes on them, and you know, that there will be some further conduct, either talking to the investigator, addressing coding issues, further investigations. There have been cases that have been unfounded and reopened and reinvestigated. We do this on an annual basis and we really think that this is an important thing to do.
We get to look at a lot of files at once. We get to discern trends, maybe trends in what particular investigators are doing or trends, you know, unit-wide. We can find patterns of bias and inappropriate police behaviour and we can see improvement. So it’s, it’s been a really productive program, and we really appreciate that successive Commissioners in Philadelphia and Captains of the Special Victims Unit have welcomed our continuing to do the audit.
You know, it’s not written in stone, although we’d like it to be. And so it’s, it’s been a productive, effective tool in reducing bias. Thank you.
Moderator: Thank you very much, Terry. And last member on the panel, certainly not least, is Lieutenant Thomas McDevitt.
Lt Thomas McDevitt: Good morning everyone. As Terry said, we were under intense scrutiny by the newspaper. Even had the reporters knocking on my door and my children asking me what the reporters wanted, wanted at the house. It all started cause of years ago, before I was there, our unfounded rate was extremely high. I think they reported at some point around 43%.
To counteract that, they started using a code which was called 2701, which was an investigation of person. And I’ll give you briefly what that was, what we were trained on that was. You know, someone would come in and they gave an account of what happened and the investigator had some additional questions, and either attempted to get a hold of the victim or they noted they attempted to get a hold of the victim, and they couldn’t.
Rather than make that an unfounded classification, they left it in investigation. Unfortunately, pretty much nothing else ever happened to it. I think I see on your thing Canada had about 2,000 sexual assaults. Well, we handle 6,000 cases a year in Philadelphia. About 3,000 are sexual assaults, the other 3,000 in our unit’s child abuse. We had a lot of reasons why we think we did what we did. None of them were acceptable.
What I can tell you was that when we were told that, you know, women’s groups are going to come in and review our files, we were come on in. We’re good. We think we’re one of the best in the country. We’re doing exactly as we’ve been taught to do. Unfortunately, when we started to go back and review things, we realized that for a lot of reasons, we became lackadaisical. We didn’t really go back and make sure that the victim was contacted again, how often did we try, did we send letters? We didn’t do everything we could have done to re-contact the victim and those cases stayed open.
There’s times that I remember me and the other Lieutenant that was in charge with going back and doing all these cases said how did we get this bad? And my name was on some of them folders. And like, how did we get this bad? How did we let these things go? I think at that point, we realized that, you know, we needed to change.
Someone said yesterday if you don’t look at yourself and see what you’re doing wrong, or what you’re doing right, you’re never going to get any better. And that’s kind of where we was, we were at that point. And then when they came in, we realized that, you know, everything that we had been taught as police officers and probably even as people, I remember my first case, I went to the hospital and the victim was outside. She had called friends to the hospital and she was outside laughing and joking with her friends. And in my experience growing up was that’s not the way someone reacts. I mean, that’s, she’s supposed to be crying and upset.
Well, it was a founded, it was a founded rape. We arrested someone. What I didn’t know was that she had previously been assaulted at college and no arrest had been made and that was her way of coping with it. So there’s different things you learn as you do these things. But the different things that we learned with the investigations were, you know, we didn’t know the name, the neurobiology of trauma, but we’ve always kind of seen there was inconsistencies with what someone said.
Unfortunately for our victims at the time is when police work, you’re taught inconsistencies means someone’s not telling the truth. And that’s how you base your investigations. Well, she was inconsistent in this statement, she was inconsistent in that statement. As time went on, and we’re learning now, as it’s coming out is you have to expect that in these types of investigations. You have to expect those inconsistencies.
And, and we learned that. We also learned the questions that we asked and the type of questions that we asked. For instance, if you said to someone did you scream? Well, she knows everyone in the world’s going to expect her to scream, so she’s going to say yeah, I screamed because she expects that’s what you’re expecting as an answer. That was almost an accusatory question. It was almost well, if you didn’t scream, this probably didn’t happen. So we learned those type of questions. We learned the why questions, you know, why did you stay in the bar? Why did you go with him?
We stopped asking those type of questions. We also stopped asking do you want to prosecute? We just thought that everybody should ask cause if you don’t want to prosecute, we’re not going to go any further. Not realizing that that question automatically puts the victim back on her heels, saying why would you ask me that? I mean, I came in here didn’t I? Why, is there something wrong? Like, you don’t believe me?
So, so we learned a lot of things on how to do a proper investigation. I know Terry just said she’s not sure if, what we did with our files, but I can tell you that over the years, I’m sure she’s seen an improvement in our investigations and what we did.
The biggest thing that we learned is that, you know, you have to really do every investigation. You have to take it from the beginning to the end, no matter what it is. If you do a complete investigation, gather all the evidence, right from the very beginning. You don’t wait later, you want to wait for evidence before you follow through. You have to do that complete investigation. If you do that, no one ever can accuse you of doing anything wrong with your investigation.
And, and you gave the victim all the dignity and investigation that they deserved, but you also make sure that you’re not really – and the other thing that’s sensitive and eases, you got to make sure you’re not accusing someone of doing something that they didn’t do, and being accused of that for the rest of life. So when they talk about sexual assault investigations, it’s very, very, the most difficult investigation you’re going to have.
You have a homicide, everybody’s going to tell you somebody got killed. They’re going to say he died. You can have all the evidence in the world in these cases, and it doesn’t really say that something happened. So you need to put your best investigators there. Unfortunately, I’ll give you a quick history of Philadelphia. We were, we did have one of the first Sexual Assault Units. They put us in an abandoned school that the school district didn’t want anymore. We didn’t have any heat for two years. We had kerosene heaters.
Then they put us in an old stable that had been abandoned by the mounted unit. We were there for several years. Then they put us into an old abandoned army arsenal. For us, it was the best place we’d ever been. We had carpet and air conditioning. (laughter) We shared the same bathroom with the defendants, the complainants and the police officers. And eventually, with the help of our advocates, we got the best facility in the police department.
The investigators were then treated like they were handling the hardest crime in the police department, which had never happened to us before. The only way for this to work, if anyone’s thinking of doing it, is, I mean, when they came in, they really told us look, we’re not here, we’re not here to say gotcha, we’re here just to work with you, become your partner and make this better for everyone. And that includes having the district attorney’s office on board.
The investigator needs to know that all the hard work they’re doing, the prosecutor’s going to follow through with it. And the victims also need to know that if they’re coming in, a prosecutor’s going to follow through with it. Luckily for us in Philadelphia, we had all that. And I heard earlier when you talked about training, I’m a big advocate on training, but you need to have Chiefs to come, as the Chief is here, cause it has to come from the to down.
And their top command also has to come to these type of trainings cause what you’ll hear sometimes is why am I going to spend this money? You know, it’s an acquaintance rape. The complainant ain’t going to follow through anyway. I can devote this money somewhere else. Well, they have to realize that this is just as important as anything else they’re doing.
And then the other big thing is training is the first responder. As you said earlier, probably one of the most important people in the investigation is the first responder. They’re the first person that the victim’s going to come in contact with and probably more influential than anyone else whether the victim follows through with the investigation or not.
And then, the investigator has to learn to have empathy for the victim in the type of questions they answer, they’re asked. All these things combined give you, give you a better investigation and we did start doing better investigations in Philadelphia. Things do have to improve. One of the biggest things is making the public aware of what goes on on a sexual assault investigation and how the victim is traumatized, whether it’s an acquaintance rape or a stranger rape.
I think that, you know, we did a great job over the years with domestic violence, and most people understand that, you know, an offender, a victim’s going to go back to the offender for various reasons. People don’t understand that in sexual assault. People don’t understand that, you know, people are trusting and they put themselves in positions because they trust people. And then someone takes advantage of that trust and assaults them. The public don’t understand that. Until we get the public to understand that, people are not going to report and you’re going to get non-convictions in court.
To me that’s the biggest hurdle that we have to conquer cause it’s still the only crime that we blame the victim. When the victim comes in, it’s, the victim already know you’re blaming them, and it’s still the only crime we blame the victim. We have to change that around to, you know, what did the offender do, not what the victim did.
And that’ll be it for me.
This panel discussed the sexual assault reporting rates to police, barriers to reporting, available supports for survivors and promising practices related to reporting and police investigations.
Terry L. Fromson
Managing Attorney, Women’s Law Project, Philadelphia