Po­lice work to un­der­stand sex as­sault im­pacts

Train­ing helps lower num­ber of cases dis­missed as ‘un­founded’

The Hamilton Spectator - - FRONT PAGE - NI­COLE O’REILLY

Hamil­ton po­lice say they have taken steps to re­duce the num­ber of sex­ual as­sault cases closed as “un­founded” in light of a na­tional in­ves­ti­ga­tion that found they dis­missed nearly one in three claims.

Sex­ual as­sault de­tec­tives have un­der­gone spe­cial­ized train­ing on the im­pact of trauma on the brain and around how un­founded cases are logged in the po­lice data­base, said Insp. Dave Hen­nick.

Un­founded is a code used by po­lice who close a case they find un­sub­stan­ti­ated. The fig­ures don’t show up on pub­lic crime stats and vary sig­nif­i­cantly na­tion­ally, ac­cord­ing to a 20-month Globe and Mail in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

The changes in Hamil­ton in 2015 fol­lowed a re­view of case sta­tis­tics dat­ing back to 2010, which was in part prompted by the Globe and Mail’s ques­tions, Hen­nick said. The re­port found a 19 per cent na­tional av­er­age of sex­ual as­sault com­plaints dis­missed be­tween 2010 and 2014. Hamil­ton’s rate was 30 per cent.

But Hen­nick says the po­lice re­view has pro­duced a more de­tailed anal­y­sis of those num­bers, which show Hamil­ton’s un­founded case rate is drop­ping.

These new fig­ures, which only in­clude cases in­ves­ti­gated by the sex as­sault unit, show a down­ward trend.

For in­stance, 24.8 per cent of com­plaints were closed as un­founded in 2010, com­pared with 19.5 per cent in 2015 and 16.5 per cent in 2016, he said.

“I be­lieve this train­ing is highly ef­fec­tive in chang­ing un­founded (rates) and how we ap­proach sex­ual as­sault cases,” Hen­nick said.

Neu­ro­science re­search is show­ing in­creas­ingly that the trauma of sex­ual vi­o­lence has a dras­tic im­pact on be­hav­iour and mem­ory, said Diana Tikasz, co-or­di­na­tor of the Sex­ual As­sault / Do­mes­tic Vi­o­lence Care Cen­tre at McMaster.

Tikasz led the Hamil­ton po­lice train­ing, where she taught sex as­sault in­ves­ti­ga­tors about what hap­pens in the brain when its flooded by stress hor­mones.

“(Mem­ory) is frag­ment and lacks con­text,” she said, adding that time is also a ma­jor is­sue, with many vic­tims un­able to re­call things chrono­log­i­cally.

This de­fies what in­ves­ti­ga­tors pre­vi­ously thought of as “be­liev­able.”

Tikasz gave the ex­am­ple of a woman who had been sex­u­ally as­saulted, who hangs around with her attacker for sev­eral hours af­ter. That be­hav­iour seems strange, but can make sense when some­one is in “fight or flight” mode.

Tikasz en­cour­ages of­fi­cers to be as com­fort­ing as pos­si­ble to vic­tims and not dis­miss what they want to talk about. Vic­tims often key in on “sen­sory frag­ments,” such as a smell or noise.

Hamil­ton’s sex as­sault unit in­cludes six de­tec­tives and one de­tec­tive sergeant. It’s in­ves­ti­ga­tors must look into ev­ery sex as­sault com­plaint for those 16 or older.

The child abuse unit, which in­ves­ti­gates as­saults of those un­der 16, used to not track un­founded cases, but changed that in 2016. Last year 34.5 per cent of its 200 cases were closed as un­founded, Hen­nick said, adding that these cases may have a higher un­founded rate be­cause of manda­tory re­port­ing leg­is­la­tion.

Sta­tis­tics from the Na­tional Sex­ual Vi­o­lence Re­source Cen­tre sug­gest the true rate of “false re­port­ing” of sex­ual as­sault is be­tween two and eight per cent.

The de­bate around un­founded sta­tis­tics shows a great need for “stan­dard­iza­tion” across po­lice ser­vices, he said.

Hen­nick also pointed to a num­ber of other ini­tia­tives to in­crease re­port­ing, in­clud­ing the re­cent goa­head to set up on­line re­port­ing of sex­ual as­saults, which is ex­pected to be up and run­ning in May.

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