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RCMP review of old sexual assault files sends more than 200 back to investigators

The RCMP has reviewed more than 30,000 of its previous sexual assault investigations and has found “consistent deficiencies” in how they were handled — including some instances of investigators failing to interview victims and suspects.

The review, which looked at sexual assault investigations that took place between 2015 and 2017 and did not result in charges, sent 327 files for further investigation — about one per cent of all the files.

Of those, 242 were re-opened, resulting in 26 charges being sworn.

“While this number appears small in light of the total number of files reviewed, it must be emphasized that files were only recommended for reopening and/or further investigative steps when serious investigative issues were identified, and where it was assessed that additional steps could potentially result in a different outcome (e.g. in charges being laid or recommended),” said RCMP spokesperson Robin Percival in an email to CBC News.

The examination of past investigations was something the RCMP promised after an explosive report from the Globe and Mail exposed flaws in the way police across Canada treat sexual assault allegations.

The newspaper’s investigation found investigators dismiss about one in five sex assault cases as unfounded — a far higher rate than for other types of crime.

The RCMP established the National Sexual Assault Review Team (SART) in 2017 and announced it would comb through past sexual assault cases for investigative shortcomings.

“The review found consistent deficiencies in some files, which required action to address gaps in training and oversight,” said the RCMP.

Percival said the RCMP discovered that, in some of the cases, no victim interviews were conducted, while in others investigators neglected to interview the suspect. The review team also noted a lack of documentation in some cases and instances of exhibits not being submitted for lab analysis.

Victims’ advocate not surprised

In some cases, officers failed to use the RCMP’s violent crime linkage analysis system, which is meant to help investigators identify serial crimes and criminals.

Angela Marie MacDougall, executive director of the Vancouver-based Battered Women’s Support Services, said the findings are not at all surprising.

“Those findings would be consistent with what we see on the frontline every day,” she said. “What we end up doing most of the time is having to advocate with the police in order for them to follow their own policies and procedures, such as conducting a proper investigation.”

But pushing back on police and demanding reviews takes time, she said.

“Just how much time does anybody have in their day in terms of holding police accountable for what is their job?” she said.

“To what extent can survivors expect that the criminal legal system will [offer] a measure of justice?”

rcmp review of old sexual assault files sends more than 200 back to investigators
Angela Marie MacDougall is the executive director of Battered Women’s Support Services in Vancouver. (Submitted by Angela Marie MacDougall)

Percival said the review team used a three-step system to comb through the cases. They’d start by examining an electronic file and flagging any investigative deficiencies. If a reviewer believed a file was not investigated appropriately, it was sent for a secondary review.

A smaller group of reviewers was then tasked with recommending specific files for follow-up. Individual reviewers then determined whether additional investigation could change the outcome for specific files, and made recomendations based on that determination.

Most cases sent back to divisions saw action

Investigators acted on 74 per cent of the case files sent back to the divisions.

Of the files that remained closed, Percival said local investigators may have other information that was not available to SART. She said that additional information may have “caused local investigators to re-evaluate the file and handle it differently than the SART’s recommendations.”

The RCMP has said that, going forward, its review team will now routinely look over sexual assault investigations that end without charges.

The force said this year it also plans to conduct a file review of sexual assault investigations involving youth aged 12 to 17.

Percival said part of the team’s mandate is to review many types of sexual assault investigations, “particularly those concerning potentially vulnerable populations.”

Despite the promises coming out of RCMP HQ, MacDougall said she isn’t convinced much will change on the ground.

“I don’t expect that there’s been any learning that’s actually going to reach the frontline patrol officers, ” she said.

“I don’t expect that there will be any lasting change and I don’t think I’m wrong.”

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