JustResearch No. 14

Research in Profile (cont'd)

Highlights from a Preliminary Study of Police Classification of Sexual Assault Cases as Unfounded

Tina Hattem, Senior Research Officer,
Research and Statistics Division, Department of Justice Canada


The General Social Survey on Victimization indicates that the non-reporting rate in sexual assault cases is significantly higher than for other violent offences. According to this national survey, the non-reporting rate in Canada has risen from 78% in 1999 to 88% in 2004 (Gannon and Mihorean 2005; Besserer and Trainor 2000). That is to say that in 2004, only one in ten sexual assault survivors chose to report the assault to the police. The research on which this article is based, addresses one of the factors that may contribute to such low reporting rates: the higher proportion of allegations that are classified as "unfounded" by police, compared to other violent offences.

The idea for this research project emerged at the 2003 National Victims of Crime Conference in Ottawa, where participants reiterated the need for more focused attention on sexual assault, in terms of both research and action to improve the criminal justice response. The exploratory study was undertaken by Linda Light and Gisela Ruebsaat (forthcoming) for the Justice Institute of British Columbia. It was funded by the Policy Centre for Victim Issues and the Government of British Columbia and was managed by the Research and Statistics Division at the Department of Justice Canada.

It is a well-known fact that most sexual assault survivors are female, and most perpetrators are male (Kong et al. 2003). As Light and Ruebsaat (forthcoming) note, the processing of sexual assault cases by criminal justice personnel is a widespread concern among those working in the violence against women area. This concern is supported by research with sexual assault survivors, who report that their experiences with the police and within the courts tend to make them feel like they are being dehumanized, blamed, and disbelieved (Hattem 2000; Tomlinson 1999.)

According to Statistics Canada, for a sexual assault to be classified as unfounded, the police investigation must establish that a sexual assault did not occur or was not attempted. Light and Ruebsaat (forthcoming) rightly emphasize that the erroneous classification of sexual assault cases as unfounded has serious implications for crime statistics and victim safety. On a broader level, they also emphasize that high unfounded rates have long been a source of tension between police and individual victims, as well as between police and abused women′s advocates and service providers. Understandably, such tension can lead to an erosion of women′s confidence in the justice system which, in turn, can lead to their reluctance to report sexual assault to the police.

The report shows that the rates of unfounded sexual assault cases vary widely between and within jurisdictions. For example, the unfounded rates in the police sites included in this study (described below) ranged from 7% to 28% in 2002 and 2003. According to Light and Ruebsaat (forthcoming), such wide jurisdictional variations raise the possibility of varying police beliefs and attitudes on the dynamics of sexual assault, as well as varying police investigative and offence classification practices in this area. The purpose of their research is to gain a better understanding of these issues.

Research Approach

Due to time limitations, the research took a primarily quantitative approach. It was conducted in four sites in British Columbia, all within driving distance of the Lower Mainland. The Vancouver Police Department (VPD) and the Richmond RCMP detachment had low unfounded rates, ranging from 7% to 12% for 2002 and 2003. The Chilliwack and Langley RCMP detachments had high unfounded rates, ranging from 19% to 28% during the same period.

A review was conducted of 148 police sexual assault files from these sites for 2002 and 2003, the most recent years for which statistics were available at the time the research was initiated. Approximately half the files were classified as founded and approximately half as unfounded. Information was gathered on factors such as the nature of the alleged incident, the initial disclosure or report to police, the police response, victim characteristics and reactions, and suspect characteristics and behaviours.

In order to facilitate comparisons between sites with relatively low and relatively high unfounded rates, the data was divided into two sub-samples, with the Vancouver and Richmond sites in one, and the Chilliwack and Langley sites in the other. Two more sub-samples were created to facilitate comparison between the VPD, an independent municipal force, and the Chilliwack, Langley, and Richmond RCMP Detachments.

After completing a preliminary analysis of the file data, the researchers held group discussions with 18 key informants to seek their opinions on investigative and/or offence classification issues that had arisen during the file review and analysis. Key informants included police members and records staff from the RCMP and the VPD, staff from the BC Police Services Division of the Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General, and an RCMP Informatics staff person.

Main Research Findings

1. Investigative Issues

A number of factors were found to be statistically associated with the classification of sexual assault cases as either founded or unfounded: whether victims and suspects were strangers; whether mental health issues or mental disability were noted in the file; whether force was used; whether the victim said "no"; whether the victim appeared to be upset; and the formality of the police investigation.

1.1 Whether Victims and Suspects Were Strangers

When victims and suspects were strangers, it was three times more likely that a case was classified as founded than unfounded for the sample of victims aged 14 and over. This pattern was consistent across sites with high and low unfounded rates. Similarly, police key informants stated that, in their view, it is much less likely that a sexual assault allegation involving strangers will be unfounded.

Whether the victim and the suspect had had a prior sexual relationship did not have a statistically significant association with the founding decision. However, as Light and Ruebsaat (forthcoming) point out, this is likely a result of insufficient numbers since a prior sexual relationship was noted in only 16 of the files.

1.2 Whether Mental Health Issues/Mental Disabilities Were Noted in the File

When it was noted in the file that the complainant had mental health issues or a mental disability, the case was more likely to be classified as unfounded in sites with high sexual assault unfounded rates, and in the three RCMP detachments as a whole. This was contrary to findings in the sites with low unfounded rates, including the VPD alone.

According to Light and Ruebsaat (forthcoming), this information indicates that there is no intrinsic reason why a complainant′s mental health issues or mental disability should affect the founding decision. Rather, they suggest that these factors will be less likely to affect the founding decision where investigators understand that affected individuals are particularly vulnerable to victimization in general, and to sexual assault in particular, and where investigators are adequately trained to interview such complainants.

1.3 Whether Force Was Used in the Sexual Assault

When it was noted in the file that the suspect used force, the case was more likely to be classified as founded than if no such use was noted in sites with high sexual assault unfounded rates and in the three RCMP detachments as a whole. The fact that no force was noted did not affect the founding decision to a statistically significant degree in sites with low sexual assault unfounded rates, including the VPD sample.

According to Light and Ruebsaat (forthcoming), this information indicates that there is no intrinsic reason why the use of force should affect the founding decision. Rather, they suggest that this factor will be less likely to contribute to an unfounded classification where police have received adequate training about the nature and dynamics of sexual assault.

1.4 Whether the Victim Said "No"

For victims aged 14 or over, when it was noted in the file that the victim said "no," the case was more likely to be classified as founded than when this was not noted in the file, in all sites except the VPD. As Light and Ruebsaat (forthcoming) note, this difference may indicate a tendency among some investigators in the RCMP detachments, to classify sexual assault cases as unfounded based on their beliefs about the nature of sexual assault, consent and victims′ resistance. They also suggest that specialized police training in the VPD and the fact that the department has a specialized sex offences unit may have enhanced members′ awareness and knowledge of these issues.

All police members who provided input to the research agreed that unless police have other reasons to doubt a victim′s credibility or her version of events, the fact that she did not say "no" should not be a reason for classifying a case as unfounded. As the authors point out, a victim may have communicated a lack of consent in other ways or she may have had valid reasons for not saying "no" to the suspect.

1.5 Whether the Victim Appeared Upset

When it was noted in the file that the victim did not appear to be upset, the case was more likely to be classified as unfounded than when this was not noted in the file. This was true in sites with high unfounded rates and in the RCMP sample as a whole.

Light and Ruebsaat (forthcoming) question the assumption that all sexual assault victims will react by being upset. They also suggest that this assumption may have a gender dimension inasmuch as female victims of sexual assault may be expected to respond to the incident by being obviously upset. In fact, sexual assault victims may exhibit a wide range of reactions to the traumatic experience - from expressing very strong emotion to being very emotionally controlled. Key informants are well aware of this dynamic.

1.6 Formality of the Police Investigation

For the sample as a whole, sexual assault cases were more likely to be classified as founded when there was an indication in the file of a formal interview with or statement from the victim, witness, or suspect than when there was no such indication. However, limited numbers did not allow for further analysis of the relationship between the formality of police investigations and the founding rate.

Nonetheless, Light and Ruebsaat (forthcoming) remark that, in many cases in the sample as a whole, an informal rather than formal approach had been taken to obtaining information from victims, witnesses, and suspects[1]. In some cases, no apparent attempt had been made to obtain information from the suspect even though one had been identified. The authors also remark that considerably more formal information was obtained from victims than from suspects in all the sites included in the study. They suggest that this may be indicative of an over-reliance on victim-generated evidence or a pre-disposition to focus the success or failure of the investigation on the victim rather than on the evidence as a whole.

Whatever the potential impact on founding decisions, most key informants agree that, in general, effective sexual assault investigations should include more rather than less formal investigative strategies and a serious attempt to interview any identified suspects.

2. Offence Classification and Statistical Issues

In addition to the investigative factors described above, the report addresses a number of offence classification and statistical issues that may impact on unfounded rates in sexual assault cases. These include the confusion between the "unfounded" and founded but "not cleared" categories; the use of an "unsubstantiated" category by the RCMP; the aggregate scoring of sexual offences involving children and adults; and the discontinuation of systematic reporting and analysis of data on sexual assault cases classified as unfounded.

2.1 Confusion between the "Unfounded" and "Not Cleared" Categories

Light and Ruebsaat (forthcoming) noted some confusion in the files between the "unfounded" and the founded but "not cleared" categories. As previously mentioned, cases should be classified as "unfounded" where there is evidence that an offence did not occur or was not attempted. The category of founded but "not cleared" applies to cases where there is evidence that an offence took place, but not enough evidence to proceed. Problems arose where there was insufficient evidence to determine whether or not an offence had occurred.

Furthermore, in the VPD sample, the authors found that sexual assault cases with insufficient evidence to determine whether or not an offence had occurred were sometimes deliberately classified as unfounded in order to avoid the stigmatization of suspects. The motivation to avoid the unnecessary stigmatization of suspects is understandable. However, it is equally important to avoid the potential stigmatization of victims whose allegations are classified as unfounded on the basis of insufficient evidence, rather than left as founded but not cleared.

2.2 RCMP Use of an "Unsubstantiated" Category

In RCMP sites, cases can be classified as "unsubstantiated" where there is no evidence to confirm whether or not an offence has been committed. Such cases are not reportable to Statistics Canada. Light and Ruebsaat (forthcoming) note that some key informants are unclear about the difference between the "unfounded" and "unsubstantiated" designations, or even unaware that the latter exists. Key informants suggest that a new category of "insufficient evidence" would remove the need to decide whether a case is founded or not when there is not enough evidence to make that determination.

2.3 Aggregate Scoring of Child and Adult Sex Offences

Statistics on the levels of sexual assault cases that are classified as either founded or unfounded include both adults and children. Given that the circumstances and dynamics of child abuse are very different from those of adult sexual assault, Light and Ruebsaat (forthcoming) suggest that the lack of a distinction between the two could have an impact on unfounded rates. As the authors note, the dynamics surrounding consent, including whether a victim says "no" or physically resists, would not be relevant where the victim is under 14. A teenager′s or adult′s motivation to falsely allege sexual assault in order to extricate themselves from a difficult personal situation would not apply in the case of a young child. And a child′s knowledge of sexual matters beyond his or her years would not be a factor where the victim of an alleged sexual assault is a teenager or an adult.

2.4 Inconsistent Reporting and Quality of Unfounded Data

It emerged over the course of the research that some police services across the country do not systematically collect data on any offences that are classified as unfounded, or do not forward the data they do collect to Statistics Canada. Furthermore, Statistics Canada no longer analyzes the data on unfounded cases that it does receive due to data quality issues. Light and Ruebsaat (forthcoming) note that no key informants at the local or provincial level appear to be aware of this state of affairs, which clearly has very serious implications for future research and monitoring capabilities in the area of sexual assault.


Light and Ruebsaat (forthcoming) repeatedly caution against overgeneralizing the study findings because of the relatively small size of the sample as well as its geographic limitations. However, given that the investigative and offence classification issues identified in their study are consistent with case processing issues identified in the literature (Light and Ruebsaat 2005), there is no reason to believe that the sites included in the study are unique in terms of police beliefs, attitudes, and practices.

As the authors emphasize, many of the files reviewed over the course of this research indicated that police had conducted thorough investigations, with a demonstrated sensitivity to the dynamics of sexual assault. However, they also identify a number of areas for improvement. Specifically, they underscore the need for enhanced training on the nature and dynamics of sexual assault, including the gendered nature of this offence, issues of victim consent and resistance, and the range of possible victim reactions to the trauma of victimization. They also highlight the need for training to improve investigative practices where required and strategies for investigating cases where complainants have mental health issues or mental disabilities.

Similarly, Light and Ruebsaat (forthcoming) suggest that enhanced training and quality control could contribute to greater accuracy and consistency in the classification of sexual assault allegations. In their view, particular attention should be paid to distinguishing between the "unfounded" and founded but "not cleared" designations, and in the RCMP, between the "unfounded" and "unsubstantiated" designations. They also identify the need to consider the implications of the current lack of national statistics on the level of sexual assault allegations that are classified as unfounded.

Whatever action is taken, a collaborative model involving abused women, their service providers and advocates, police services, as well as researchers and trainers, is key to improving criminal justice responses to sexual assault offences.


[1] The approach to obtaining information from victims, witnesses, and suspects was characterized as informal when only a police account of the victim, witness, or suspect narratives was in the file. The approach was characterized as formal when there was audio or video-taped evidence of an interview or a formal written statement from the victim, witness, or suspect in the file.