Police work to understand sex assault impacts
Training helps lower number of cases dismissed as ‘unfounded’
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.